Posts filed under 'Intellectuals'

1661: Jin Shengtan, literary scholar

Add comment August 7th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1661, scholar Jin Shengtan — the “father of vernacular Chinese literature” — was

Jin Shengtan (English Wikipedia entry | Chinese) had the misfortune of reaching his intellectual maturity amid the collapse of the Ming Dynasty and the ensuing chaotic transition to the Qing.

In those years he contributed a perspicacious literary commentary that resides to this day in the canon of Chinese letters; his criticism is credited with raising the stature of Chinese vernacular literature, for instance via his meticulous analysis of Water Margin — now rated as one of the four classic Chinese novels.

In 1661, Jin took part in a protest against official corruption whose violent suppression is remembered to Chinese history as the “Lamenting at the Temple of Confucius”. Jin’s particular lament — probably apocryphal but too good not to repeat — has been remembered as a jest from the edge of the grave: “Being beheaded is the most painful thing, but for some reason it’s going to happen to me. Fancy that!”

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,History,Intellectuals,Power

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1861: Melchor Ocampo, liberal statesman

Add comment June 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1861, the Mexican statesman Melchor Ocampo was summarily executed by right-wing guerrillas.

Once a seminarian, Ocampo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) turned his face towards public life, becoming a most eloquent exponent of the era’s movement of liberalism and anticlericalism.

He was among the faction who rebelled in 1854 against recurrent strongman Santa Anna; he served in the ensuing epochal presidency of Benito Juarez and helped to draft the liberal constitution that governed Mexico until 1917. Secular, egalitarian marriage vows promulgated in 1859 by Ocampo are still used in many marriage ceremonies to this day.

The revolutionary social reordering of these years was achieved only by civil war, a conflict remembered as the Reform War which ended only when the conservatives surrendered Mexico City on New Year’s Day of 1861.* Ocampo, who had the stature to stand for president himself, preferred to consolidate the victory by throwing his support to Benito Juarez in the ensuing elections.

Retiring thereafter to private life, he was targeted by one of the numerous remnant right-wing militias that still persisted in the countryside months after the putative conclusion of the Reform War. These abducted him from his home in Michoacan on May 30 and held him for some days, permitting him to write his last letters, before having him shot and strung up on June 3. His remains currently repose in honor at Mexico City’s Rotunda of the Illustrious … as are those of Ocampo’s longtime comrade Santos Degollado, who undertook to hunt down and revenge himself upon his friend’s killers but instead became their prey.

The town of Melchor Ocampo is, quite obviously, named for the man; his surname has been attached as an honorific to his home region of Michoacan, one of Mexico’s 32 states (officially called Michoacan de Ocampo) and to Tepeji del Rio de Ocampo, the place where he was executed.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Martyrs,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1975: Nine Iranian communists

Add comment April 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1975,* Iran extrajudicially executed nine political prisoners.


This photo is a dramatic re-staging — evocative of a famous photo of executions in revolutionary Iran a few years later, or perhaps in the white-clad central prisoner’s raised arms, the Goya painting that forms this very blog‘s frontispiece. (Contrary to the reconstruction, the executioners had just one Uzi and took turns spraying it at their victims.) It’s part of a fascinating project by Azadeh Akhlaghi to portray 17 pivotal deaths in Iran’s history.
We took the prisoners to the high hills above Evin. They were blind-folded and their hands were tied. We got them off the minibus and had them sit on the ground. Then, [SAVAK agent Reza] Attarpour told them that, just as your friends have killed our comrades, we have decided to execute you — he was the brain behind those executions. Jazani and the others began protesting. I do not know whether it was Attarpour or Colonel Vaziri who first pulled out a machine gun and started shooting them. I do not remember whether I was the 4th or 5th person to whom they gave the machine gun. I had never done that before. At the end, Sa’di Jalil Esfahani [another SAVAK agent, known as Babak] shot them in their heads [to make sure that they were dead].

Account of a former Savak agent, Bahman Naderipour, who was executed after the Iranian Revolution. The New York Times report of Naderipour’s public trial has him recounting:

“We took them out of the jail and put them in a minibus and drove them to the hills. We had only one submachine gun, an Uzi, among us, so we took turns shooting them … we didn’t give them a chance to make a last declaration. We blindfolded them and handcuffed them and then shot them. I think was the fourth to shoot. We took the bodies back to the prison. and we had the newspapers print that they were killed during a jailbreak. We had the coroner confirm this version.”

The victims were Ahmad Jalil-Afshar, Mohammad Choupanzadeh, Bijan Jazani, Mash’oof (Saeed) Kalantari (Jazani’s maternal uncle), Aziz Sarmadi, Abbas Sourki, Hassan Zia Zarifi, Mostafa Javan Khoshdel and Kazem Zolanvar.\
The last two named were members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, the still-extant MEK back when it was still a standard Marxist revolutionary movement and not a cult.

The first seven named were members of the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, a proscribed Communist guerrilla organization.

One of those seven, Bijan Jazani, was a co-founder of that organ and one of the greatest Communist intellectuals Iran ever produced. (For a flavor of his thought kick back with the Jazani collection in Capitalism and Revolution in Iran.) With him was Hassan Zia-Zarifi, long a collaborator in leftist circles.

The proceedings that had landed them in prison in the first place had already put them in the global spotlight especially given the horrific torture applied to the defendants. (Among other things, these seven were adopted by Amnesty International as watchlist political prisoners.) International pressure had staved off juridical death sentences … so the matter was handled extra-juridically instead, with the standard insulting cover story, “shot trying to escape.”

Iran reaped a considerable diplomatic fallout from these murders. Its embassies around the world were rocked by protests of emigres and human rights campaigners in the ensuing weeks; that May, a team of communist assassins gunned down two American Air Force officers stationed in Tehran to train the Shah’s security forces — claiming responsibility “in retaliation for the murder of nine of our members.” (UPI dispatch from Boston (US) Globe, May 21, 1975)

There’s a lengthy lecture on Jazani et al by Communist historian Doug Greene.

* Some sources give April 19 instead. I have not been able to resolve the discrepancy to my satisfaction.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Intellectuals,Iran,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Torture

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1939: Aleksei Gastev, Soviet scientific manager

Add comment April 15th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the Old Bolshevik Aleksei Gastev, a theorist of scientific management for the Soviet state, was shot in Stalin’s purges.

Expelled in his youth from tsarist teaching ranks due to his radicalism, Gastev (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) traced his revolutionary bona fides back to the 1905 Revolution (he fought in it) and even before (as an ally and correspondent of Lenin).

With the advent of the latter’s revolution, Gastev founded the Central Institute of Labor (CIT), and CIT’s training firm Ustanovka (“setup” or “installation”) — organs dedicated, respectively, to the study of work, and to the promulgation of the new science of the workplace throughout the Soviet economy.

It was a socialist perspective on Taylorism, that practice of scientific management that was also transforming capitalist production; like Taylor, Gastev aimed to systematize the routine operations on the factory floor, to learn the most efficient way to wield a hammer or a shovel and expel from the labor force the indulgence of artisanal idiosyncracy and rule-of-thumb work; more broadly, Gastev aimed to revolutionize the way work was conceptualized by Soviet people, bending the mental and behavioral orientation of workers to optimize them for the demands of industrial production.

“Even when we exit the gates of the factory, still we carry the factory,” he wrote, positing a question that demanded “a cultural ustanovka.”

Fear of this very thing haunted Europe in this moment and has never left her nightmares in the century since. The CIT juxtaposed curiously with the almost simultaneous publication of some of the seminal dystopian mechanization literature — like Yevgeny Zamyatin‘s We (1921), in which the rational ordering of society annihilates freedom, and Karel Capek‘s R.U.R. (1920), the play that borrowed a Czech term for unfree work to give the world’s lexicon that wonderful word “robot”. Unsettling to many, this twining of man and machine was understood by Gastev as an emancipatory vista.

Gastev’s ideal worker is neither the oxen brute of Taylor’s dreams, nor the lifeless robot of Capek’s nightmare. He is rather an active, sentient, and creative part of the productive process who behaves like a seasoned, conscious, and well-trained warrior. Armed with sharpness of vision, acute hearing, attentiveness to environment and detail, precision and even grace of movement, and “scoutlike” inquisitiveness about the relationship and locations of things and peoples, he enters the factory as though it were a battle-field with commander-like briskness, regimental routine, and a martial strut. For him, no romance, no heroic individual deeds — only a relentless battle waged scientifically for production.

But the robot is present in Gastev’s vision nonetheless: it is the machine itself, not the man. For Gastev, the machine also takes on a life that gives it not only the power to produce and enrich, but also to train, to inspire, to organize. His wildest visions of 1918-19 are previsions of Capek and Zamyatin and celebrations of a coming event often warned about in science fiction: the takeover by machines. Gastev could never quite decide whether the machine was to be the master or the servant of man. Since he continued to use the machine metaphor, he eventually opened himself to attack by those who opposed his policies on other grounds. But Gastevism differed from administrative utopia — the heavy-handed martialing and mobilization of raw labor in a palpably unequal hierarchy. Gastev’s man-machine meant a symbiosis of the two, interacting in a way never wholly understood even by himself. It clearly contained fearful elements. But Gastev himself, by all accounts, was not a cold-hearted machine-like fanatic but a warm and engaging person. He did not fear the power of the machine. He feared backwardness, passivity, and sloth. (Source)


Dziga Vertov‘s 1929 classic Man with a Movie Camera captures the excitement of industrialization and industrial workers.

On the side — to stave off the sloth — Gastev kept up an artistic output of his own as a poet of the Proletarian Culture movement; this exemplar (Order No. 2 from a work called “Ten Orders”) comes to us via Wonderlands of the Avant-Garde: Technology and the Arts in Russia of the 1920s, which notes that “what is produced is never specified; the emphasis rather is on the establishment of a certain pace of work, as if machines manufacture a new time — the rhythm of the new life.”

Chronometer, report to duty.
To the machines.
Rise.
Pause.
A charge of attention.
Supply.
Switch on.
Self-propulsion.
Stop.

The chronometer stopped for Gastev with his fall in late 1938, and he proceeded thence to the familiar fate of Stalin’s prey amongst the intelligentsia. As he associates with the positive, modernizing, and utopian strain of the Soviet experiment but not its failures or horrors his name is not blackened to posterity and the present-day Russian Federation’s Ministry of Economic Development sponsors an “A.K. Gastev Cup” award to honor advances in production.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR

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Feast Day of Saint Pigmenius

Add comment March 24th, 2019 Headsman

March 24 is the feast date of Saint Pigmenius, the patron saint of pigmen.

In the hagiography, Pigmenius was a Christian scholar who numbered among the instructors of the young royal relative destined to switch back to paganism and become reviled of Christians as the Emperor Julian the Apostate.

Fleeing the new order, Pigmenius headed to Persia and as the Roman martyrology recounts it, there

he lived four years and went blind. After four years he was addressed in a dream vision by the Lord Jesus Christ, saying: “Pigmenius, return to Rome, and there you will regain your sight.” Getting up the following morning, he had no fear, but immediately got into a ship and came to Rome. After four months, he entered the city; he began to ascend the hill on the Via Salaria with a boy, feeling his way with a cane. And behold, Julian the emperor, travelling in his golden robes, saw Pigmenius from afar; recognizing him, he ordered him to be summoned. When he had been brought, Julian said to Pigmenius: “Glory be to my gods and goddesses that I see you.” Pigmenius replied: “Glory to my Lord, Jesus Christ, the crucified Nazarene, that I do not see you.” In a rage, Julian ordered him to be thrown off a bridge into the Tiber.

So he got to dunk on the emperor, before he got dunked by the emperor.*

However, this book (French) makes the interesting argument that the fourth century Pigmenius was a reinvention of a 1st century Roman saint of similar name, to whom subsequent legends attributed a fictitious eastern sojourn.** “It is this ‘orientalization’ of Pigmenius that connected it to the time of Julian,” runs the argument. For, once Julian’s death in battle in those precincts made the East an overwhelming shadow in Roman minds, “Julian’s story melded somehow with the legends which ran over the distant lands where it had unfolded and the oriental traditions, were ‘Julianized'” — Pigmenius’s among them.

* As the editor of this martyrology remarks in a footnote, this snappy retort was actually borrowed by the hagiographer from stories of Maris, Bishop of Chalcedon, to whom is attributed a similar exchange:

Julian: Thy Galilean God will not heal thy sight.

Maris: I thank God for depriving me of the power of beholding thy face.

** Comparable, the author claims, to the Persian excursions of Saint Cyriacus.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Drowned,Execution,Famous Last Words,God,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Power,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1595: Robert Southwell

Add comment February 21st, 2019 Headsman

February 2O, 1594-5, [Father Robert] Southwell, a Jesuit, that long time had lain prisoner in the Tower of London, was arraigned at the King’s-bench bar. He was condemned, and on the next morning drawn from Newgate to Tyburn, and there hanged, bowelled and quartered.

-Chronicle of John Stow

Youngest child in a gentry household of Catholic-leaning Norfolk, Robert Southwell was for holy orders and martyr’s laurels from the jump; in 1576 at the tender age of 15, he made for Douai and its English seminary, noted for training missionary priests who would return secretly to Elizabethan England to court torture and death for the Word. Within a decade he was a prefect at the English College in Rome and a fully armed and operational member of the Society of Jesus.

In 1586, Southwell sailed for his homeland with fellow Jesuit Henry Garnet, who would one day go to the gallows for Guy Fawkes’s Gunpowder Plot.

For Southwell, the pen was mightier than such detonations.

“St. Peter’s Complaint” (Excerpt)
by Robert Southwell

Ah! life, sweet drop, drown’d in a sea of sours,
A flying good, posting to doubtful end;
Still losing months and years to gain new hours,
Fain times to have and spare, yet forced to spend;
Thy growth, decrease; a moment all thou hast.
That gone ere known; the rest, to come, or past.

Ah! life, the maze of countless straying ways,
Open to erring steps and strew’d with baits.
To bind weak senses into endless strays,
Aloof from Virtue’s rough, unbeaten straits
A flower, a play, a blast, a shade, a dream,
A living death, a never-turning stream.

Quietly nestled in as the house confessor to Catholic noblewoman Anne Howard, Southwell scratched out page after page to fortify the hearts of the beleaguered Old Faith — standard stuff like martyrology testimony concerning his brother priests, overt manifestos like An humble supplication to Her Maiestie, and literary bestsellers admired by Protestant countrymen like Mary Magdalene’s Funeral Tears and his verse collection St. Peter’s Complaint, and Other Poems.*

This last appeared posthumously. After three years’ imprisonment — “I am decayed in memory with long and close imprisonment, and I have been tortured ten times,” the imminent martyr said of his handling by notorious Catholic-hunter Richard Topcliffe; “I had rather have endured ten executions” — Southwell was brought to the bar on February 20, 1595, to answer as a traitor and put to the traitor’s death the very next day.

Though less widely familiar now, his literary output was well-known and highly regarded long after he died, and perhaps influenced many other writers including Shakespeare. The Catholic Church elevated Southwell to sainthood in 1970.

* A couple of Southwell’s epistles are preserved in the 1741 volume Memoirs of Missionary Priests.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,God,Gruesome Methods,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason

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1572: Johann Sylvan, Antitrinitarian

Add comment December 23rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Antitrinitarian Calvinist Johann Sylvan lost his head in a Heidelberg market.

Sylvan — or Johannes Slyvanus — was a pastor and theologian in the service of Calvinist Elector Frederick III.

Frederick’s own Calvinist scruples were theoretically anathema in a Holy Roman Empire whose writ of tolerance did not extend past Lutheranism.

But Sylvan gravitated towards a circle of reformers whose concept of the divine left orthodox Calvinism far behind — “a group of ministers within the Palatine church, who were not only prepared to deny the eternal divinity of Christ, but secretly aspired to promote a further reformation of received doctrine with a view to restoring the pristine monotheism of the faith,” according to this pdf volume, The Heidelberg Antitrinitarians.

This rejection of the long-canonical Christian mystery of threefold godhead formed a recurring subtheme of Europe’s Reformations, its exponents — like Michael Servetus — forever prone to martyrdoms administered by any respectable sect.

This proved to be the case for Sylvan as well; given his dubious theological position within the empire, Elector Frederick might have felt it politically necessary to come down hard on these radicals.

Still, while Sylvan was made the example, others in his Antitrinitarian circle lived to expound their heresies in other lands. Matthias Vehe fled to Transylvania — where a Unitarian Church was founded in 1568, protected by a sympathetic prince — and then to other fellow-travelers in Poland. Adam Neuser also escaped, later converting to Islam and defecting to Ottoman Istanbul, an event that did a lot of lifting for anti-Anti-trinitarian propagandists.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,God,Heresy,History,Holy Roman Empire,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures

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1799: Nicola Fiorentino, Jacobin man

Add comment December 12th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Neapolitan Republican Nicola Fiorentino went to the gallows.

A precocious and multitalented scholar, Fiorentino (Italian Wikipedia link; almost everything to his name on the Internet is in Italian) was all of 19 years old when he obtained the professorship of mathematics at the royal school of Bari in 1774 although this honor was a bit delayed since he’d won a competition for a similar chair in Aquila when he had not yet attained the minimum age of 15.

Health problems would bring the Renaissance man back to his native Naples in 1780s, where he distinguished himself in law, commerce, and increasingly in politics: his various texts in politics and economics trending ever more reformist through the years, until he went full Jacobin when Naples got her own short-lived republic in early 1799. Fiorentino’s “Hymn to San Gennaro for the Preservation of Liberty” (image) from that heady moment appeals to the patron saint of Naples to inspire “ardor for Equality and Freedom” so that in their new-made country would prevail “not privilege and flattery, but merit and virtue.”

Instead, a speedy Bourbon reconquest clinched the other thing.

Having held no office in the Republic he was ridiculously condemned for nothing but his prominence and the credibility his adherence lent to the republic.

Fiorentino has the consolation of a present-day Neapolitan street named in his honor.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Martyrs,Naples,Power,Treason

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1793: Francois de Laverdy, former Controller-General

Add comment November 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Clément Charles François de Laverdy, Marquis of Gambais and the ancien regime‘s former Controller-General of Finances, was guillotined in Paris.

“Un financier erudit,” Laverdy (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a member of the Paris Parlement and a scholar who at one point unearthed previously unknown manuscripts about the trial of Joan of Arc — but became a bit overmatched when political machinations situated him at Louis XV’s treasury.

A physiocrat, Laverdy made a go in the 1760s at liberalizing the grain trade by authorizing via a July 1764 edict the free export of grain, then reaped the whirlwind when grain prices spiked. In the 1760s, the whirlwind just meant losing his job: by the 1790s, the loss was very much more dear.

Laverdy labored in a pre-industrial kingdom, at a time when the field of economics still lay in its infancy. Nevertheless, he is a recognizably modern character, both in his principles and his disposition, as Steven L. Kaplan describes him in Bread, Politics and Political Economy in the Reign of Louis XV:

Laverdy correctly believed that traditional attitudes toward subsistence constituted the single greatest barrier to change. But, like many self-consciously enlightened ministers and reformers, he neither understood nor sympathized with it. Diffusing light, to be sure, was no easy matter; since all men were not equally equipped to seize the truth, often it was necessary to force them to accept it. To re-educate the public, Laverdy saw no alternative to brutal and relentless reconditioning.

Impetuously, the people believed that their right to subsist took precedence over all the rights prescribed by natural law as the basis of social organization. They assumed that it was the solemn duty of the state to intervene when necessary to guarantee their subsistence without regard for so-called natural rights. Such views, in Laverdy’s estimation, were erroneous and pernicious; they misconceived the role of the government and its relation to the citizenry and did violence to the soundest principles of political economy. In a word, they were irrational; the Controller-General refused a dialogue with unreason. “The people,” he lamented, “hardly used their reason in matters of subsistence.” …

To combat and discredit this mentality, Laverdy chose to belittle and insult it with all the sophistry of progressive thinking. It consisted of nothing more than a crazy quilt of “prejudices.” “Prejudice” was one of the harshest epithets in the political vocabulary of the Enlightenment; it acquired added force when accompanied by Laverdy’s favorite metaphors, light and sight. Their prejudices “blinded the people,” not only to the “veritable principles of things,” but also to “their true interests.” (A decade later, in similar fashion, Turgot explained popular resistance to his liberal program on the grounds that the people are “too little enlightened on their real interests.”) In letter after letter, the Controller-General railed against the “old prejudices which still subsist against liberty of the grain trade.” He hated “ignorance” and “prejudice” en philosophe for the “obstacles … always contrary to all sorts of good [which they] opposed to progress.” …

Only a tough, unbending stance would produce results. “By stiffening against the prejudices of the people,” he predicted, “they will gradually weaken and we will succeed in accustoming them to a bien,” though, he conceded, “they will continue to misjudge [it] for still some time to come.” Misjudging it, however, was one thing, and actively opposing it, quite another. The threat of bludgeoning them into submission was the only real incentive the Controller-General offered the people to embrace the liberal program.

The bread riots that afflicted the remainder of his term he could not but ascribe to this unreason; proceeding from the certainty that his policies were objectively correct, “Laverdy claimed that grain was abundant and prices moderate” and riots “could only have resulted from ‘the prejudice which exists against the liberty of the grain trade.'”

Or, as a liberal journal serenely put it, the riots “are not and cannot be the effect of real need” because in a regime of liberty, “the dearth that the enraged minds fear, or feign to fear, is manifestly impossible.” …

Two assumptions, in Laverdy’s view, seemed to have emboldened the people. First, that they could riot with “impunity,” an expectation encouraged by many police authorities — those at Rouen, for example — who fail to put down popular movements swiftly and mercilessly and who in some instances even seem to sympathize with the insurgents. Second, “the persuasion which the populace of the cities ordinarily shares that the fear of the riots which it might excite will force the King to modify the laws which established liberty.” Nothing was “more essential,” according to the Controller-General, than to “destroy” these aberrant opinions.

To dispel the idea that consumers could riot without risk, Laverdy instructed and exhorted the police after every episode to repress with dispatch and pitilessness. Repeatedly, he asked for “a few examples of severity,” which would serve not only to “contain the people,” but also to “destroy those prejudices” which motivated them, presumably by revealing the futility of following their lead. If the repression were to be delayed, the didactic advantages would be lost. “Nothing is more important,” Laverdy wrote Joly de Fleury in reference to a riot which took place in the fall of 1766, “than to accelerate the procedures instituted against the principal authors … examples in such circumstances are of the greatest necessity and when they are deferred, they do not produce nearly the same effect.” … Impatient with “the slowness of the official inquiries, the appeals, the forms to which the [ordinary] tribunals are subjected,” the Controller-General considered resuscitating a draconian repressive law which had been used before to bypass local jurisdictions …

Soft sentences annoyed Laverdy as much as dilatory ones. Even as he urged the police to show rigor in the streets and marketplaces, so he goaded prosecutors to demand heavy penalties and judges to pronounce them. He followed cases eagerly in all their details, made his expectations clearly known, and bristled with indignation when the results displeased him. In the wake of a massive riot at Troyes, for example, in which the police had failed to deal harshly with the insurgents, Laverdy pressed for a stern judicial reckoning. He was satisfied to learn that the royal procurator and the rapporteur would ask the death penalty for three of the putative leaders and stringent punishment for the others. In anticipation of such a verdict and a hostile popular reaction, extra brigades were sent to reinforce the constabulary. To virtually everyone’s surprise, the presidial rendered a stunningly mild provisional sentence which could lead to the release of all the prisoners in three months. The Controller-General angrily denounced the verdict and demanded an explanation; “the excesses to which the people have given themselves in this circumstance,” he wrote, “require a much more severe punishment.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Intellectuals,Politicians,Power,Public Executions

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1859: Yoshida Shoin, samurai sage

Add comment November 21st, 2018 Headsman

The name at the head of this page is probably unknown to the English reader, and yet I think it should become a household word like that of Garibaldi or John Brown. Some day soon, we may expect to hear more fully the details of Yoshida’s history, and the degree of his influence in the transformation of Japan …

Robert Louis Stevenson

On this date in 1859,* Japan’s fading Tokugawa Shogunate beheaded samurai sage Yoshida Shoin as an enemy of the state.

Inheriting leadership of an unprosperous samurai house by the untimely death of his adoptive father, Yoshida (English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Japanese) studied war and philosophy from the age of five but understood right away that the classics he knew backward and forward were no match for the American gunships that steamed into Edo Bay in 1853.

Keen to learn the barbarian’s secrets, Yoshida and a friend named Sakuma Shozan* surreptitiously presented the American flotilla with an illicit request to come aboard. The American Commodore Perry never knew their identities, but he remembered the two “men of some position and rank, as each wore the two swords characteristic of distinction, and were dressed in the wide but short trowsers of rich silk brocade. Their manner showed the usual courtly refinement of the better classes, but they exhibited the embarrassment of men who evidently were not perfectly at their ease, and were about doing something of dubious propriety. They cast their eyes stealthily about as if to assure themselves that none of their countrymen were at hand to observe their proceedings, and then approaching one of the officers and pretending to admire his watch-chain, slipped within the breast of his coat a folded paper.” That paper, in courtly Mandarin, implored the visitor that the authors

have been for many years desirous of going over the ‘five great continents,’ but the laws of our country in all maritime points are very strict; for foreigners to come into the country, and for natives to go abroad, are both immutably forbidden … we now secretly send you this private request, that you will take us on board your ships as they go out to sea.

Instead, the shogunate clapped them in cages.

Would that iron bars could contain the shock Commodore Perry’s ships had given to Japan. Those islands had long closed themselves against the West save for narrow apertures on Dutch Learning. The evident superiority of American arms and the consequent necessity of accepting unequal treaties proved a fatal blow to the shogunate. Anger at the shogun manifested in a movement to restore the rights of the emperor — a position that the shogunate had centuries before reduced to a mere figurehead.

Our man Yoshida Shoin emerged from prison as a teacher whose loyalty hewed to the emperor. In vain did the shogunate attempt to purge such characters, for their cause far outstripped this or that man. Several of Yoshida’s students would be important players in the coming Meiji Restoration that did indeed reanimate the imperial office and topple the shogunate by the late 1860s.

By that time, Yoshida was rated a martyr and spiritual forerunner, for the dying shogunate had indeed seen fit to destroy him: “the old story of a power upon its last legs,” as Stevenson’s biography figures it: “learning to the bastille, and courage to the block … He failed in each particular enterprise that he attempted; and yet we have only to look at his country to see how complete has been his general success.”

* The Gregorian date. By the Japanese calendar it occurred in the tenth month, and some sites erroneously place it in October for that reason.

** Shozan was destined to be assassinated in 1864 by Kawakami Gensai.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Japan,Martyrs,Nobility,Power,Treason

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!