Posts filed under 'Innocent Bystanders'

1859: The martyrs of Tacubaya

Add comment April 11th, 2014 Headsman

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.

** One notable victim: writer Juan Díaz Covarrubias.

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.

† Buchanan also cited the hanging of Ormond Chase in this same speech.

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1642: George Spencer, pork loin

1 comment April 8th, 2014 Headsman

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.

As so often with a proper monster story, it was the frightened townsfolk who produced the real horror.

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.

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1782: The Gnadenhutten Massacre

3 comments March 8th, 2014 Headsman

You recall the time when the Jesus Indians of the Delawares lived near the Americans, and had confidence in their promises of friendship, and thought they were secure, yet the Americans murdered all the men, women, and children, even as they prayed to Jesus?

-Tecumseh, to William Henry Harrison in 1810

This date in 1782 marks one of the more appalling single atrocities in the United States’s long destruction of indigenous Native Americans — the Gnadenhutten Massacre.

This incident during the American Revolution took place in the Ohio River basin, a vast and fertile flashpoint whose part in not only the revolution but the antecedent French and Indian War perhaps entitles it to claim the midwifery of the coming American empire.

After victory in the French and Indian War, the British closed the area west of the Appalachian mountains to European settlement. This proclamation:

  • Made good a wartime pact Britain had made to secure the support of the Iroquois, Lenape (Delaware) and Shawnee tribes; and
  • Trailed facts on the ground the moment it was issued.

European settlements and land claims already existed in the supposed Indian Reserve, and land-hungry settlers did not let the supposed frontier deter them from advancing new ones. Confrontations between these arriving claimants and the native inhabitants not infrequently came to atrocious resolutions.

By 1768, a new treaty pushed the line further west, effectively ceding to the colonists everything south of the Ohio River — present-day Kentucky and West Virginia.*


Map of the disputed area: the frontier moved from the yellow line along the Applachians to the orange line along the Ohio.

Ohio Country, the remaining territory in dark green shading north of the Ohio River, lay at the time of the American Revolution between the British garrison at Fort Detroit and colonial outposts along the nascent United States’s western marches, such as Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

The Lenape Indians in Ohio Country had a difficult calculation to make as to which side (if any) and how to support during the British-American fighting. The question split the Lenape internally.

In this cauldron, a strange morsel: Lenape who were Moravian** Christian converts had established a little missionary village. “Gnadenhutten” literally means “huts of grace”.

As one might imagine, Gnadenhutten and its sister settlements of pacifistic, Christian Lenape stood in a terribly ambiguous position in the brutal irregular war going on around them. Their fellow Lenape distrusted them because they were Christians; their fellow Christians, because they were Lenape.

Suspected by the British of being friendly enough with the American colonists to pass intelligence to their eventual murderers, these converts were in 1781 forced out of Gnadenhutten by British-allied Lenape to a new settlement aptly named “Captive Town”.

Starving there in the ensuing winter, the Moravians dispatched nearly 100 of their number back to Gnadenhutten to retrieve food abandoned at that settlement.

The Moravians were still at their village when a raiding party of Pennsylvanians descended on the town. Under no authority but the militiamen’s own festering grievances from the ongoing dirty war, the Pennsylvanians rounded up the Delaware and heartlessly declared their deaths.

Here were Indians who would pay for the violence Indians had done. And they were the best kind: the kind who didn’t fight back.

After spending a night praying and preparing for the end, the Moravian Lenape were systematically butchered on the morning of March 8† with mallet blows and scalpings.

Depending on your source, there were either 90 or 96 scalps to take that morning – women, men, and children in nearly equal proportions. At least one young boy survived the death squad and reported the massacre. Nor were all the militia themselves at peace with their deed.

one Nathan Rollins & brother had had a father & uncle killed took the lead in murdering the Indians, & Williamson was opposed to it; & Nathan Rollins had tomahawked nineteen of the poor Moravians, & after it was over he sat down & cried, & said it was no satisfaction for the loss of his father & uncle after all. — So related Holmes Jr. who was there — who was out on both Moravian campaigns, & Crawford’s. (Source)

Ah, Crawford’s campaign.

Later in 1782, another expedition of frontiersmen under Col. William Crawford set out “to destroy with fire and sword” a different Lenape settlement in Ohio. Instead, the Lenape met and routed the expedition, taking Crawford prisoner. He and the other captives from that misadventure would be burned to death, in part to avenge Gnadenhutten.

This, and whatever like tit for tat could be exacted in the field, was all the justice the Lenape could ever hope to have for the hecatomb of Gnadenhutten. American authorities declined to prosecute or sanction any members of the militia.


“Here triumphed in death ninety Christian Indians March 8, 1782″: inscription at the base of a memorial obelisk in Gnadenhutten. (cc) image from Mike Drabik.

* This might have been a nice solution, except that said treaty was made by the Iroquois — and only the Iroquois. For the Shawnee who actually lived and hunted in this cessation, this was two outside powers bartering their land. They didn’t mean to give it up on the say-so of the Iroquois. Another nasty frontier war followed, and even when that was won by Virginian militia, dissatisfied Shawnee continued targeting settlements in Kentucky; it’s partly for this reason that the Declaration of Independence slates King George III with having “endeavoured to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers, the merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.”

For more on the long and tragic Shawnee struggle in this period, see “‘We Have Always Been the Frontier’: The American Revolution in Shawnee Country” by Colin G. Calloway in American Indian Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 1 (Winter 1992).

** The Moravian Church‘s name harkens to its Czech origins. It’s a successor to the reform tradition of Jan Hus.

† There are a few cites out there for the day before or the day after March 8.

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1820: Not Stephen Boorn, saved by newsprint

1 comment January 28th, 2014 Headsman

January 28, 1820 was the scheduled hanging-date for Stephen Boorn in Vermont, who was spared by the stroke of luck in one of the Republic’s seminal wrongful conviction cases. For all its vintage, it has a disturbingly current feel.

Stephen Boorn and his brother Jesse were farmers in Manchester living with their possibly feebleminded brother-in-law Russell Colvin when Colvin suddenly vanished in May 1812. Vanishing unexplained for weeks on end was actually an established behavior for this peculiar gentleman, so it was only gradually that suspicion of foul play accumulated. There was some bad blood known to exist between Colvin and his brothers-in-law; they had even been seen in a violent quarrel just before Russell Colvin disappeared (pdf). There were whispers, but never any real evidence.

And so weeks stretched into months, and then to years. Many years. Was it possible two neighbors of the good people of Manchester, Vt., had gotten away with murder plain as day and gone about bringing in their crops just like nothing happened?

The break arrived in 1819 courtesy of the brothers’ aged uncle Amos Boorn. Amos reported that Russell Colvin had appeared to him in a dream and accused his former in-laws of murder. Now a dream couldn’t be read in evidence, but it proved sufficient to re-open a cold case and endow the investigation with official “tunnel vision” so familiar to the staging of a wrongful conviction.

The other classic trappings of that scene followed anon: shoddy evidence, a jailhouse snitch, and even a false confession.

Once under the pall of suspicion, random events around the Boorns began to seem sinister. The dream-Russell’s accusation led to a cellar-hole being excavated, which turned up some random junk (a penknife, a button); was it Colvin’s random junk? A barn on the Boorn farm burned down; had it been torched to conceal evidence? A boy found bones at a stump on the property; were they human remains? (They turned out to be animal remains.)

Stephen Boorn had moved to Denmark, New York, but Jesse Boorn was taken into custody for interrogation. There he was parked in a jail cell with a forger named Silas Merrill.

Lo and behold, Jesse Boorn immediately spewed to his bunkmate the awful secret of the murder. Yup, after keeping it quiet for seven years he detailed it all to Silas Merrill one “night, when he and Jesse had waked from their sleep, and without any previous persuasion or advice on the subject” and also just happened to tie in all that random sinister stuff from the investigation like the barn and the bonestump. Naturally, Merrill was released for relaying to his jailers this valuable and in no way impeachable information.

Now cornered, Jesse confessed to the murder. The causes of false confessions are complex, but the advent of DNA exonerations has underscored the alarming frequency of this phenomenon. A strictly rationalist explanation might postulate that Jesse thought he could avoid hanging by taking responsibility for a crime he was now certain to be convicted of, and framing it in the least culpable possible light; the murkier fathoms of human psychology might suggest a desire to please his captors or a conscience conforming itself to the conviction of his neighbors. Whatever the case, the confession got Stephen extradited from New York, and under interrogation Stephen too confessed. Stop confessing to things, people! (In fact, best say nothing at all.)

Despite retracting the confession, the brothers were convicted with ease in a trial held at the town’s church, the better to accommodate huge crowds that would have overflowed the courtroom. They were both slated to hang on January 28.*

While Jesse Boorn won a commutation his brother appeared doomed.

As an almost literal last gasp, Stephen took out newspaper advertisements searching for Russell Colvin. And they worked. At least, this is the version of the story as it is commonly recounted, dating I believe to this 1932 volume on wrongful convictions. The primary sources referenced there actually appear to me to indicate that the Boorn-saver, a New Jersey gentleman named Taber Chadwick, responded with a letter to the editor to a simple news report of the case, which report naively credited the dream-driven conviction as “divine providence”.


From the New York Evening Post, Nov. 26, 1819.

Luckily, Mr. Chadwick realized that he knew a Russell Colvin from Manchester whose mental state was thoroughly addled.


New York Evening Post, Dec. 10, 1819.

A fortnight after this letter hit the press, Colvin was back in Manchester … and this time, it was not in a dream.

Colvin confirmed that his brothers-in-law hadn’t hurt him at all and both Boorns — who, we remind you, had each previously confessed to killing a man who was now here in the flesh and blood to exonerate them — both these Boorns walked free.

Update: Embarrassingly not noticed by my own self in researching this post, a comment from the outstanding 19th century crime blog Murder By Gaslight flags the hypothesis that the entire exoneration was staged using an imposter to weasel the Boorns out of prison.

* According to this biography of the African-American divine Thomas Lemuel Haynes, Haynes was the Boorns’ confessor while they awaited execution, and one of the only people to believe the brothers’ protestations of innocence. Haynes was eventually moved to spend his own money on the famous advertisement hoping that “any person who can give information of the said Colvin may save the life of an innocent man.” If there’s one Vermonter who comes out of this astonishing story smelling like a rose, it’s Reverend Haynes.

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1934: John and Betty Stam, China missionaries

Add comment December 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Chinese Communists beheaded John and Betty Stam in the Anhui province town of Miaoshu.

The Stams had settled as China Inland Mission proselytizers in the town of Jingde (at their time generally rendered as “Tsingteh”). Betty Stam (nee Scott) had grown up in China, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary. John was a New Jersey native who had graduated Moody Bible Institute in 1932. They had a three-month-old daughter named Helen Priscilla.

On December 6, 1934, Communist rebels in China’s long-running civil war entered Jingde and seized the foreign family. According to a tribute page kept by a great-nephew of the, John wrote a short note that evening.

Tsingteh, An.
Dec. 6, 1934

China Inland Mission, Shanghai

Dear Brethren,

My wife, baby and myself are today in the hands of the Communists in the city of Tsingteh. Their demand is twenty thousand dollars for our release.

All our possessions and stores are in their hands, but we praise God for peace in our hearts and a meal tonight. God grant you wisdom in what you do, and us fortitude, courage and peace of heart. He is able-and a wonderful Friend in such a time.

Things happened so quickly this a.m. They were in the city just a few hours after the ever-persistent rumors really became alarming, so that we could not prepare to leave in time. We were just too late.

The Lord bless and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.

In Him,
John C. Stam

The author of John and Betty Stam: Missonary Martyr summarizes his subjects’ “inspiring and instructive story” in a blog post here.

A foreboding message, but Christian evangelizing in China had often proved dangerous to its practitioners.

The next day they were march 12 miles to Miaoshu where they stopped for the night. Facing martyrdom, the couple stowed their daughter away like Moses, hidden in a sleeping bag with John’s last missive and ten dollars that might serve to care for her.

Miraculously, Helen Priscilla would be overlooked when the Stams’ captors came for them on December 8 and marched them through Miaoshu. It’s said that one local man made bold to object, and was added to the doomed party for his trouble. At the end of the march, John was forced to his knees and beheaded before his companions’ eyes; Betty and the shopkeeper followed him.

Little Helen survived her parents’ ordeal. A Chinese evangelist named Lo found the girl and carried her 100 miles to a mission hospital. She was taken in from there by Betty’s parents and eventually adopted by Betty’s sister and raised in the Philippines before returning to the United States.

Back in China, another missionary, Frank Houghton, was moved by the sacrifice of the Stams to compose a hymn, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendour” (set to an old French canticle, Quelle est cette odeur agréable?).

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1982: Dos Erres massacre

Add comment December 7th, 2013 Headsman

On December 7, 1982, a unit of army commandos entered the Guatemalan hamlet of Dos Erres.* There it authored one of the signature atrocities of the bloody Guatemalan Civil War.

This was the Guatemala of Efrain Rios Montt, once a junior officer during the CIA-backed 1954 coup that set in motion decades of civil strife.

Relative brutality in that conflict waxed and waned over the years. In 1982, the now-General Efrain Rios Montt overthrew another general and went full werewolf. “A Christian has to walk around with his Bible and his machine gun,” Rios Montt infamously remarked. And more than walk them: the general’s policy was a you’re-either-with-us-or-with-the-terrorists hard line called Frijoles y Fusiles, “beans and shooting.” Campesinos who were with Rios Montt got the beans.

Shortly before this date’s atrocity, a column of Guatemalan soldiers were ambushed by leftist guerrillas, killing 21. Those guys were going to get the fusiles — them, or any convenient peasants who might hypothetically be on friendly terms with them.

Dos Erres, a remote jungle village of 60 families, was the settlement nearest where the rebels were thought to be operating. The little town had already drawn the ire of the army by resisting recruitment to civil defense patrols.

Late on the night of December 6, 1982, 20 members of Guatemala’s Kaibiles commandos set aside their special forces uniforms and disguised themselves as guerrillas, in green t-shirts and civilian trousers and red armbands. Ostensibly their mission was to recapture the rifles the rebels had seized from the ambushed convoy, which were supposed to be stashed in Dos Erres.

Hiking two hours into the jungle to reach their target, the commandos crept into the still-sleeping settlement at 2 in the morning. With the support of a 40-man regular army detachment to seal Dos Erres’s perimeter, the commandos stormed into residences and drug bewildered townspeople out, herding the men into a school and the women and children into a church.

That commenced an all-day litany of horrors for the residents of what was about to become the former village. Dos Erres was wiped off the map by the end of it.

One of the senior lieutenants on the mission raped a woman, and other commandos immediately availed themselves of the implied license to abuse women and girls. By the end of it, the last sobbing women and children were led out to the forest and machine-gunned en masse.

They were by then the last survivors, save for a little boy who managed to escape into the jungle. Throughout the course of the 7th of December, the Kaibiles brought villagers old and young to the edge of the town well. “As they were brought to the well, they were asked, ‘where are the rifles?’,” one of the participants later described. “They said nothing about rifles, and they were hit on the back of the head with a sledgehammer, and thrown in the well.” Every commando had to participate, so that all were implicated.

Commando Gilberto Jordán drew first blood. He carried a baby to the well and hurled it to its death. Jordán wept as he killed the infant. Yet he and another soldier, Manuel Pop Sun, kept throwing children down the well.

The commandos blindfolded the adults and made them kneel, one at a time. They interrogated them about the rifles, aliases, guerrilla leaders. When the villagers protested that they knew nothing, soldiers hit them on the head with a metal sledgehammer. Then they threw them into the well.

“Malditos!” the villagers screamed at their executioners. “Accursed ones.”

“Hijos de la gran puta, van a morir!” the soldiers yelled back. “Sons of the great whore, you are going to die!”

[Commando Cesar] Ibañez dumped a woman in the well. [Favio] Pinzón, the cook, dragged victims there alongside a sub-lieutenant named Jorge Vinicio Sosa Orantes. When the well was half-filled, a man who was still alive atop the pile of bodies managed to get his blindfold off. He shouted curses up at the commandos.

“Kill me!” the man said.

“Your mother,” Sosa retorted.

“Your mother, you son of the great whore!”

Pinzón watched as the infuriated Sosa shot the man with his rifle and, for good measure, threw a grenade into the pile. By the end of the afternoon, the well overflowed with corpses.

The commandos left town the next morning with six captives: the rebel who had been forced at gunpoint to guide the Kaibiles to Dos Erres in the first place (he would be executed in the field); three teenage girls (the soldiers that night would take turns raping them, then strangled them the next day); and two very small boys (these were returned to the Kaibiles base). A few days later, the army returned and razed the remains of the devastated town to the ground. Only recently has the site been excavated and its many victims’ remains cataloged for proper burial.

The tragedy of Dos Erres became public in the 1990s. Five soldiers who participated in the butchery have each been sentenced to 6,060 years in prison just for this one incident, but there were many more like it in Guatemala in those years — many more people who were put to Frijoles y Fusiles.

A 1990s truth commission after the war pegged the total number of civilians killed during the war above 200,000, mostly indigenous Mayans and (as was the case for most at Dos Erres) mestizos. “State forces and related paramilitary groups were responsible for 93% of the violations documented.”

The truth commission also found that the “government of the United States, through various agencies including the CIA, provided direct and indirect support for some state operations.” Indeed, supporting death squads against leftists in Central American dirty wars was overt U.S. policy during the 1980s; just days before Dos Erres, U.S. President Ronald Reagan returned from a Latin American tour and told reporters that Rios Montt, whom he had just met, was “totally dedicated to democracy in Guatemala.”

“They’ve been getting a bum rap” from human rights nabobs, Reagan averred.

In the fullness of time that rap would eventually encompass Rios Montt’s own remarkable conviction for crimes against humanity and (since the Mayan population was targeted en masse) genocide in a landmark case that’s still being appealed as of this writing. (The May 2013 verdict against Rios Montt was immediately overturned; the case is obviously extremely politically sensitive.) In a separate case, he’s been charged specifically with responsibility for the Dos Erres massacre.

U.S. President Bill Clinton formally apologized for Washington’s role in Guatemala after the truth commission’s findings were issued in 1999.

The PBS radio program This American Life has an hour-long documentary about Dos Erres here; a companion ProPublica series has even richer (and more horrifying) detail.

* Named for its founders, two men named Ruano and Reyes, the name literally meant “two Rs”.

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1752: James of the Glen

Add comment November 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1752, the Scotsman Seamus a’ Ghlinne mounted a gallows above the narrows at Ballaculish with the reproach of Psalm 35 for his persecutors:

False witnesses rose; to my charge things I not knew they laid.
They, to the spoiling of my soul, me ill for good repaid.

Seamus a’Ghlinne — James of the Glen, or just James Stewart — had come there that day to die for the ambush murder of Colin Roy Campbell.

The victim was stock of Clan Campbell, one of the largest Highland clans and one whose loyalties to England’s Hanoverian kings were being richly rewarded.

The Stewarts, who had backed the recent ill-fated Jacobite rebellion in favor of the exiled pretender Bonnie Prince Charlie, were in the opposite predicament.

Colin Campbell was said on that fatal May 14 to be en route to expel the Stewarts from the village of Duror so that Campbells could move in. But even Campbell’s everyday job of extracting resentful rents from estates repossessed from Jacobite sympathizers would have turned many a murderous eye his way.

Someone that day shot Colin Campbell in the back from wooded cover, then vanished, murderous eye and trigger finger and all, never to be never apprehended. So they got James Stewart to answer for it instead.

This wasn’t a tragic case of well-intentioned police developing tunnel vision on the wrong suspect so much as repaying tit for tat in a family feud. The trial was held at the Campbells’ Inverary Castle. Its presiding judge was the Campbell alpha male, the Duke of Argyll. Eleven more Campbells sat on Stewart’s jury. But then, from the Campbells’ side, or London’s for that matter, what was to say that this one murder might not be the germ of a new rebellion if not ruthlessly answered?

Still, there was “not a shred of evidence,” says present-day Glasgow barrister John Macauley, who is pushing for an official reversal of the verdict. “The whole thing from start to finish was a farce.” (Judge for yourself here.)

James Stewart was, however, the foster father of a man who actually was suspected of firing the shot, Allan Breck Stewart, a former Jacobite fighter who had returned from exile in France to collect rents for the Stewarts. Known to have threatened the Campbells previously, Allan was also tried and condemned to death — but only in absentia, since he suspiciously fled to France immediately after the so-called Appin Murder.

Many years later, Robert Louis Stevenson would use this dramatic crime, and Al(l)an Breck’s flight to safety, in Kidnapped. “I swear upon the Holy Iron I had neither art nor part, act nor thought in it,” Stevenson’s Alan says to the fictional protagonist in the novel, just after both have witnessed the murder.

And in reality, Alan too is thought by those who know the case to be clear of guilt in the matter. The Stewart family reputedly knew all along which of their number was Campbell’s real killer, but refused to give him up and kept the family secret for generations. It’s even said that that man had to be forcibly held down on execution day to prevent him giving himself up.

To judge by the most recent research, that man was likely Donald Stewart, the son of Stewart of Ballachulish and the best shot among a group of several young hotheads who resolved together to slay the Campbells’ hated Factor. The conspiracy also goes as the reason — or at least excuse — for keeping Donald silent, since in giving himself up he might see all four of them to the gallows. The late Lee Holcombe makes a comprehensive case for Donald Stewart as the gunman in the 2004 book Ancient Animosity: The Appin Murder and the End of Scottish Rebellion; Donald Stewart was also fingered publicly in 2001 by a matriarch of the Stewarts of Appin, though others of her family have not publicly confirmed that that’s the secret name.

James Stewart’s decaying corpse remained gibbeted on the spot of his execution for 18 months after, a rotting warning to the Stewarts or any late Jacobites. In 1754, a local halfwit called “Daft Macphee” finally tore down the gallows and threw it into Loch Linnhe … but its former position overlooking the modern Ballachulish Bridge is still marked by a mossy stone monument to James of the Glen, “executed on this spot Nov. 8th 1752 for a crime of which he was not guilty.”

A Few Books About the Appin Murder

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1536: Sebastiano de Montecuccoli, poisoner of the heir?

Add comment October 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1536, Italian nobleman Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was torn apart at the Place de la Grenette in Lyons for poisoning the dauphin Francis, heir to the French throne.

Sebastiano de Montecuccoli was a knight from Ferrara who had arrived in France in the train of the Catherine de’ Medici when she was married off to the no. 2 French prince Henri. He was fast friends with the royal princes, but his proximity to the family horribly turned against him when the 18-year-old Francis played a game of tennis, then caught ill and dropped dead. The last thing poor Francis had done was play a game of tennis, then ask Montecuccoli for a glass of water.

In an era of forensics-by-guesswork, a sudden and unexplained death inevitably drew suspicions of poison — all the more so in a France gone security bonkers in the wake of the Affair of the Placards.

So just was in that glass of “water,” eh?

Sebastiano, upon his arrest, was found to possess a tome of poisons. This was a common enough interest among his class. (Catherine de’ Medici also had an interest in poison.) Nevertheless, it was great material for tunnel-vision investigators, and the young Italian soon provided a corroborating self-incrimination under torture: Sebastiano had offed the crown prince on orders from France’s longtime rival Charles V, who also just happened to be fighting a war with France over the duchy of Milan at that very moment.

Sebastiano attempted to recant this confession once he was off the rack, but to no avail. Many 16th century contemporaries could descry the eventual consensus of posterity that Sebastiano was a naif, and not an assassin. (Francis likely died from a disease.) Less generous by far was the judgment of the Lyonnaise citizenry who fell upon and ravaged Sebastiano’s body after it had been torn apart by horses.

Thanks to the unexpected death of the heir that triggered this horrible punishment, Francis’s brother Henri advanced to the crown prince seat and eventually became Henri II of France (until Henri’s own unfortunate sporting mishap) … and that Italian bride Catherine de’ Medici became Queen of France.

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1583: Elisabeth Plainacher, Vienna’s only witchcraft execution

Add comment September 27th, 2013 Headsman

The city of Vienna only has one documented execution for witchcraft to its illustrious history. It occurred on this date in 1583.

Elisabeth Plainacher (English Wikipedia entry | German) was a miller’s daughter from Mank who had lived most of her 70 or so years during the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, that social conflict so productive of witchcraft accusations.

It would factor very specifically in Elsa’s case, since she herself was a Protestant in a very Catholic place.

Elsa’s daughter Margaret died in childbirth, and Elsa took all four of the surviving children into her own care while Margaret’s widower went his own way. Three of these children would die in her care; the fourth became an epileptic in her teens, finally leading Margaret’s (Catholic) former husband to accuse his mother-in-law of bewitching everybody.

The accusation was ill-timed for the “witch”: Jesuit zealot Georg Scherer got hold of the case and put the epileptic teenager through a gantlet of exorcisms that he claimed expunged 12,652 infernal spirits. Scherer’s accounting must have been as rigorous as his faith.

“Scholars and men of understanding know that devils have neither flesh nor limbs, but are spirits, and therefore need no place or space as do our bodies,” Scherer later wrote by way of explaining the crowded tenancy. “A hundred thousand legions of spirits could all be collected together on the point of a needle.” Scherer preached, and later published, a sermon this holy combat, titled “A Christian remembrance of the most recent deliverance of a young woman who was possessed by 12,652 devils.”

This was a relentlessness which Elsa Plainacher was not formed to resist. She was a humble miller with some family drama, and then suddenly she was under torture (German link) in the imperial capital with the day’s headline pulpit-basher at her throat. She soon admitted whatever devilries her torturers demanded of her: giving the epileptic over to the devil, desecrating the Host, all that sort of thing.

On September 27, 1583, she was drug by a horse to an open field where she was burned at the stake. Her ashes were consigned to the Danube. Plainacherin even persisted (more German) in the local vernacular for a time as a dirty word.

Posterity’s apology for this horrible fate comes in the form of a small Vienna street, Elsa-Plainacher-Gasse, named after her. (There’s also a Plainachergasse in her native Mank.)

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1997: Chiang Kuo-ching, Taiwan wrongful conviction

1 comment August 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1997, Taiwanese airman Chiang Kuo-ching was shot for the rape-murder of a five-year-old girl the previous September.

Chiang was nominated as a suspect by a fellow enlistee just a day after the little girl’s body was found in a privy gutter.

So, he and three other early suspects were given “lie detector” tests. Because Chiang was the only one of these who “failed” to acquit himself by this ludicrous mummery, he became the subject of implacable official tunnel vision.

The case was referred — illegally and arbitrarily — to the country’s intelligence services, who subjected Chiang to 37 hours of torture in order to extract a confession: beatings, threats, sleep deprivation, and private screenings of “his victim’s” autopsy.

Chiang broke, and admitted to the crime.

That admission was the star witness against him in his ensuing military trial. Chiang had retracted it by then — but that was much too late to help himself, especially since potentially exculpatory forensic evidence was intentionally withheld from his defense.

As it turned out, the bloody handprint and the DNA trace recovered from the scene didn’t match Chiang at all. No evidence connected him to the crime, except the evidence of truncheons.

Another airman, Hsu Rong-chou, eventually admitted to the killing. (He’d already been convicted in two other child molestation cases, in 1997 and 2003.) In 2011, Hsu received an 18-year prison sentence for the crime that took Chiang Kuo-ching’s life. Chiang was posthumously acquitted that same year.

The latter-day reversal of the sentence was so sensational that Taiwan’s legislature enacted a special law to increase the compensation Chiang’s family received. The family also got an extraordinary televised apology from President Ma Ying-jeou, who bowed three times before an image of the wrongfully executed man.

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