Posts filed under 'Known But To God'

1683: Two lynched during the Ottoman siege of Vienna

Add comment July 14th, 2018 Headsman

Our “execution” this date is of the mob justice variety — said mob being panicked Viennese bracing for Ottoman investiture.

As is generally the case one has many ways to read this particular lynching; at least one victim has even been situated as a trans martyr. John Stoye in his The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial between Cross & Crescent gives us the thread of causation, and it turns out that these two unfortunates owed their death to Vienna’s urban planning.

The military architecture of this period was designed to keep the besieger at a distance as long as possible. The ground in front of the main defences would be cleared of buildings, and even levelled — this was the ‘glacis’; along the outer rim or ‘counterscarp’ of the moat a well-protected walk, the covered way, was constructed — usually of timber spars and palisades — from which detachments of the garrison could command with their fire the open ground in front of them; and the covered way had to be laid out so that they could command it from a number of angles … Attackers on the glacis, those who reached the counterscarp, those even who got as far as the main wall, were all exposed to fire from artillery and marksmen on the bastions …

Clamped within the walls but expanding in numbers, the citizens of Vienna had tried to build upwards. They added an extra storey to some 400 out of 1,100 houses in little more than a century. But inevitably the suburbs also grew, spreading out into the countryside — and in towards the city. By 1680 there were large settlements in Leopoldstadt on the Prater island, by the right bank of the Wien on the east, round the hamlets of Wieden and St Ulrich south and south-west, and on the western side. Particularly here the new building approached very close to the fortifications. The government had over and over again ordered the demolition of dwellings within a given distance of the walls, but to little effect. If a maximum estimate of Vienna’s total population brings it to nearly 100,000 people, a sizeable proportion must have lived in these suburbs, which would in due course give accommodation and protection to a besieging army.

The foremost Ottoman raiders now appeared, and in the distance the smoke of burning villages in the neighbourhood rose skywards. [Vienna military governor Count Ernst Rudiger von] Starhemberg did not dare delay in performing one of his most disagreeable duties: the speedy and forcible clearing of the glacis. Since earlier demolition orders had not been obeyed, he began — on 13 July — to burn down everything in the area outside the counterscarp which would obviously hamper the garrison. Most of all he wanted to clear the ground west of the city, where suburbs came closest to the moat. More smoke rose skywards. The sparks flew. They flew over the walls as far as the roof of the Schotten monastery by the Schottengate, where a fire broke out in the afternoon of Wednesday, the 14th; and it almost altered the course of history. The wind blew sparks against the neighbouring buildings, an inn, and from the inn to a wall of the Arsenal, where supplies of every kind were stored, including 1,800 barrels of powder. Nearby, other powder magazines adjoined the New-gate. If the defence-works here were seriously damaged by explosion, or the stores lost, resistance to the Turks was hardly thinkable. The flames moved along a wooden gallery into the Arsenal. Townsmen and soldiers gathered, there was a muddle about keys which could not be found, but soldiers broke through a door and cleared the points of greatest danger. A hysterical mob, looking on, smelt treason at once and lynched two suspects, a poor lunatic and a boy wearing woman’s clothes. It also destroyed the baggage which an inoffensive mining official from Hungary, then in Vienna, was trying to get out of a second inn near the Arsenal; and it panicked at the sight of a flag flying unaccountably from a roof close to the fire, fearing some kind of a signal to the enemy. More effectively, the wind then veered. Flames swept towards and into aristocratic properties on the other side, away from the Arsenal, and proceeded to burn out the Auersperg palace where the ruins went on smouldering for days. The crisis had passed before the arrival of the Turks; but the danger of yet more fires, set off by Turkish bombs or by traitors and spies inside the walls, was to be a constant nightmare in Vienna later on.

Despite the nightmare, Vienna — scorched glacis, crazed mobs, and all — withstood the siege. It was indeed the siege’s Turkish military commander who was executed for his command failure before the year was out, after failing to complete the conquest.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arson,Austria,Borderline "Executions",Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1941: 3,500 Jews at the Khotyn Fortress … but not Adolph Sternschuss

Add comment July 3rd, 2018 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On July 4, 1941, a thirteen-year-old Jewish boy named Ephraim Sternschuss began his diary in the Nazi-occupied Zloczow, Poland, with these lines:

Mother knows nothing about Father’s murder. I won’t be the one to tell. But I have to express what I’m feeling … I’ll write down all the details so when I’m old I’ll remember my youth and this World War, even though I’m not sure I’ll live through it.

I’m writing while lying on my back. I can’t move my legs. Mother says I’m in shock. Maybe I am. Maybe I’m so anxious because I can’t tell her about Father, who was drafted yesterday into forced labor and Mother still believes he’s alive.

The eastern Polish town of Zloczow had been annexed by the Soviet Union after the partition of Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact in 1939. Zloczow‘s Jews, who at 14,000 people constituted about half of the population, lived in relative safety until the summer of 1941, when the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union.

They arrived in Zloczow on July 2. With the help of enthusiastic local Polish and Ukrainian collaborators, the SS rounded up 3,500 Jews, among them Adolph Sternschuss, Ephraim’s father. The victims were told they would be sent to forced labor — excavating mass graves of Soviet victims, digging anti-tank ditches, and such.

They were, in fact, digging their own graves.

Ephraim described his father’s departure thusly:

Father was taken at 10:00 a.m. An evening earlier Mrs. Reichard came by and told us that at a local Ukrainian meeting, it was decided to carry out an anti-Jewish pogrom the very next day. Unfortunately, Father didn’t believe her because she was such a gossip. Father was sitting in the kitchen when two Ukrainians came in, Warwara from our street and Bojko a tailor …

They told Father to get ready for work. Father changed into an old suit, emptied his pockets of everything except a penknife, a handkerchief and a Soviet ID. They said to give Father bread because “he would return only at two in the afternoon and he’d get hungry until then.” (My god, what hypocrisy!) Mother made two sandwiches with sausage. They also told him to bring a shovel and he kissed Mother and me and went away.

Adolph did not return at two o’clock, and at four that afternoon, Ephraim and his mother, Anna, heard the sound of distant gunfire coming from the Khotyn Fortress. A neighbor came by and told Ephraim there had been a mass shooting (the perpetrators were members of Einsatzgruppe C) and “all the men were killed.”


Khotyn Fortress. (cc) image from Andriy Baranskyy.

Ephraim assumed his father must be dead. He started his diary because he couldn’t bear to speak the dreadful fact aloud, but had to confide in somebody, if only an old school notebook.

What he didn’t know was that Adolph Sternschuss had, in fact, miraculously survived the shooting. The happy news was delivered to Ephraim’s family on July 5: Adolph was alive and hiding with friends of the family.

Around four o’clock the mother of Mrs. Kitai, Mother’s friend, came in and said that Father was alive and staying with them. Hurray! I went wild, jumping, laughing, everything. Mother gave her clean underwear for Father and asked her to tell him to stay there, not to come home, until the situation improved. Mother went out to tell Mrs. Reichard the news, and about an hour later the door opened and Father came in.

I’ll never forget the sight. His black suit was gray with dirt and dust, on his head he wore some wrinkled hat … He held the package of underwear Mother sent him and a small army shovel. When he entered I jumped out of bed and screamed “Mummy!” and ran to him. I kissed him although he was terribly stinking, like a corpse — and he started crying. It was the first time I saw Father cry.

Together with Mrs. Beer we pulled a sofa into the other room and hid the door behind a mirrored chest. We helped Father remove his clothes and then we saw what the Ukrainians were capable of. His whole back was beaten to a black pulp and swollen and he had a hideous bruise on his head.

We washed him and then he ate something and then we put him to bed and he fell asleep. He didn’t say a word.

Over the next few days, Adolph described his ordeal and his incredible survival to his only child, who wrote it all down in detail in his diary. Adolph’s story, as told to Ephraim, is worth quoting almost in full:

At noon I brought him a meal and he told me what he had gone through. I didn’t recognize his monotonous tone, but there, in the darkness of the basement, I sensed that he was reliving his ordeal. Well, in the beginning he worked near the Fortress, burying cadavers of horses.

Then he was transferred to the Fortress itself. At the entrance he was ordered to show his papers, but he lied, claiming he had none. “A man is only an addition to his identity card,” he said as if he were the father I knew.

They worked in two places: the inner court of the prison and the garden. They had to dig up mass graves of corpses killed by the NKVD — Ukrainians and Poles (and some Jews like Dr. Grosskopf and his son-in-law). The bodies were laid out in rows to be identified.

On that occasion, the Ukrainians beat the Jews, accusing them of committing these murders. Naturally, the Germans and the S.S. troops joined in, beating the Jews mercilessly. Father was followed by a short, white-haired butcher who hit him with a stout stick he had pulled out of the fence, and by a tall, blond S.S. soldier who used a coiled rope.

At noon two officers came up to Father and asked his profession. He answered, “Lawyer.” Probably they could tell from his accent that he had studied in Vienna,* but they asked him anyway. When he confirmed it, one of the Germans asked, “You aren’t Jewish, are you?” and Father said he was, and the German, furious, said, “Then I can’t do anything for you,” and the two of them stormed off.

Shortly after, the shooting began …

Around three o’clock they shot Father, but as he happened to already be in the ditch, all four bullets hit the pile of dirt, and Father fell down and pretended to be dead. An hour later it started raining and that’s what saved him: the Ukrainians and Germans were forced to stop shooting and shelter themselves under the roof.

At 9 p.m. sharp Kuba Schnapp and Freimann pulled Father out of the ditch and all three made their escape. Father practically had to be dragged away because both of them, and two corpses, were lying on his left leg. “After playing Indians,” said Father and it seemed to be that he smiled, they slipped through a hole in the fence and parted ways.

Father wanted to enter Winczura’s house but was refused. He then moved on to Barabasz and there, in the attic, were about thirty people. The next day he was forced to leave because of the terrible conditions. He moved over to a client of his, Mrs. Lewant, and stayed in the attic with the Kitai family. From there he returned home.

“One thing is etched in my memory forever,” he said. “I never imagined that Jews could die like that. They were like Romans. Proud, erect, silent. Thus they were killed.”

Seventy years later, one “old, toothless” witness, one of the fifteen remaining Jews still living in the area, recalled the massacre: “The earth shifted for days. They couldn’t bury them fast enough.”

Unfortunately, Adolph didn’t live long after he crawled out from under those corpses in the mass grave. He was not young, and his health was ruined by his horrific experience. Just a few days before Christmas, he died in his bed after a series of heart attacks.

On December 29 that year, Ephraim wrote mournfully,

Only those who have lost their fathers will understand me — and regrettably there are so many now. Dr. Hreczanik was right when he said to Mother, “your husband was killed at the Fortress.”

This first mass killing in Zloczow was followed by others. In late August 1942, the Germans rounded up 2,700 Jews and deported them to the Belzec Extermination Camp. In early November, a further 2,500 people were taken away.

A month later, a ghetto was established for between 7,500 and 9,000 people from Zloczow as well as the remnants of several nearby Jewish communities. Rather than go into the ghetto, Ephraim and his mother went into hiding, concealed outside the village of Jelechowice by sympathetic Ukrainian Catholic farmers: Grzegorz “Hryc” Tyz, his wife Maria “Misia” Koreniuk, and Helena Skrzeszewska.

The Sternschusses made the right choice: in April 1943 the Zloczow Ghetto was liquidated and all the survivors were shot and buried in mass graves.

Ephraim and Anna Sternschuss remained hidden on the rural farm for the rest of the war. When it was safe they just stayed inside the house; when there was danger they hid “downstairs” under the floor, “in a grave-like pit, narrow and long.” He kept writing in his diary:

We walk about the house without any inhibition, trusting Rex to faithfully do his duty. He barks differently at anyone so we can know in advance whether he’s a friend or a foe. In any case, whenever we hear him, Mother and I enter our room, shut the door and Misia, if the visitor is a stranger, sings “Chiming of Bells in the Dusk.” Then we sit quietly, almost without breathing, waiting for the visit to end. Nobody must know about our existence here.

The Sternschuss family’s hosts refused to accept any payment for their stay, but Ephraim and his mother did have to chip in to cover the cost of their food. Over time, others joined them: Ephraim’s aunt and uncle, Lipa and Linka Tennenbaum; the Tennenbaums’ daughters, Eda and Selma; the five members of the Parille family; and Edzia Weinstock and her daughter Eva.

Thus, the farm became a sanctuary for eleven Jews, plus the three hosts — all living on a small farm with a three-room farmhouse, a shed, an outhouse, and an uncertain grant of borrowed time. Ephraim occupied himself writing in his diary, drawing, and reading. Misia Koreniuk, one of his hosts, was a teacher, and she freely shared her “huge chest of books and magazines” with him. Ephraim even began teaching himself algebra and geometry.

It wasn’t all a nightmare. There was, for example, an amusing incident in February 1943 where they got the farm animals drunk on moonshine vodka:

It was a pity to have to throw it away, so Hryc scattered a bit in the yard for the chickens and the rest he put in the trough for the cow Krasula. The chickens pecked — and immediately lay down on the earth, absolutely foggy minded. But Krasula started going berserk, running around and climbing trees. It was terribly funny but also a bit dangerous. Hryc managed to overcome her with much difficulty and tied her up in the stable.

Through his hosts Ephraim kept up with the progress of the war and tracked the Allied advance in his diary, eagerly awaiting liberation. Yet it was hard to stay optimistic and he occasionally had thoughts of suicide. As he wrote in October 1943, he struggled to keep from succumbing to apathy and despair:

It’s all nonsense. […] Nobody knows us. We don’t have anybody in the whole wide world. Nobody. Only Mother and I. Therefore there’s no other option: one mustn’t give in to crises. We have to stay united. Today my heart is heavy. I’m writing almost in darkness but I must write. Too much crap weighs on my heart and I must pour all of it, at least in this diary.

Why is it called life? The best years of my youth have gone by and will not return. Never. Even if it all ends today, it won’t do any good … This is my life. And if I add the well known fact that everybody is born with a death verdict — what’s there to live for?

On November 6, 1943, a baby girl was born on the farm — the offspring of one of the members of the Parille family. Before the war, the mother had tried for years to get pregnant, going through “all possible treatments and nothing helped. And here, of all places, did she give birth.”

Ephraim wrote that their host, Hryc, started sobbing in despair when he found out:

So we aren’t only fourteen but fifteen with the baby! Not too bad … That’s to say very bad. Lipa is right saying that the baby can betray us all. We learned not to speak but to whisper, but a baby?! What’s to be done?

Within a few days the baby died. Perhaps it was just as well.

The situation became even more precarious in late January 1944, after a unit of retreating Germans showed up at the farm and the commander requisitioned a room in the farmhouse for himself and his Russian girlfriend.

Thus the farmhouse was divided: the German in one room, the three Ukrainian farmers in the next room, eight Jews in the 3×4 meter room down the hall, and three more hidden in the shed!

The German officer never found out about the hidden Jews, and as Ephraim noted, the man’s presence turned out to have a silver lining, because it protected everyone from the threat of looting, arson and murder at the hands of anti-Semitic Ukrainian partisans, who had become very active in the area.

Also, Helena Skrzeszewska was able to cajole the military kitchen into giving her their leftover soup, which she fed to the Jews. Ephraim noted wryly, “We live at the expense of Hitler.”

He was actually upset when the German officer left the farm two weeks later, writing,

Our citadel is no more. Again fearful nights will begin without the landlords who’ll go to the village for their sleep. We’ll remain on our own against the gangs, full of fear of the Ukrainian killers, of being set on fire … Again night watches every two hours, with a pistol and six bullets.

Sure enough, in early March, while Ephraim’s hosts were away from the farm, the Ukrainian partisans tried to set the place on fire. Ephraim was on watch that night:

I don’t know if I panicked. But now, while writing that, I think I wasn’t absolutely clear about what I was doing. Anyhow, after raising [the others in hiding], I opened the door and like an idiot went out into the lighted yard. Two sprints brought me to the well. I crouched behind its side and emptied my pistol of all its bullets, shooting into the darkness of the forest like a movie cowboy. The first time in my life.

In the meantime Lipa, Mother, Linka and Edzia came out with buckets. […] I don’t think it took us a long time to control the situation. The fools didn’t shoot at us from the forest despite the fact that we were in the light. I assume — and I’m not the only one thinking like that — that they were frightened of us being armed.

In the morning, when our landlords came back from the neighbors, they were surprised to learn that the house was still standing. […] Hryc went to the forest and found blood stains in the snow.

Later the month the Germans returned and searched the farm for signs of partisan activity, and actually encountered Ephraim’s aunt and mother inside the house:

Mother and Auntie locked us in and ran to the entrance door. They hardly made it when the door was busted open in spite of the big lock hanging outside. The Germans were astonished running into them. Despite Lipa’s warnings to Mother not to reveal her knowledge of German, she explained to them that they were locking themselves in the house in fear of the partisans.

“The partisans are all Juden,” said one of the Germans, and then asked where did Mother acquire such a German [language]. She told him she lived in Salzburg and came here to get married. “It’s all Love’s fault,” said the German, asked her to forgive him, went out and in a moment returned with a bomboniere.

In the meanwhile dawn was breaking and they discovered the Germans were S.S. troops. Mother says that if she wasn’t hit by a heart attack she would never have one. Immediately she told them they were being “evacuated” to the West. The Germans, perfect gentlemen that they were, proposed to help them, give them a truck. Auntie thanked them, said there was no need, everything was under control. Indeed.

Half an hour later our landlords returned back from the village. They looked really terrified when they saw Mother and Linka standing at the entrance to the house with two S.S. men. Mother introduced them, bid the Germans farewell and entered the hideout with Auntie.

The hideout happens to be east of the house, not west.

All the Jews spent three days in the underground hideout until the SS officers left. By then the front was very close, as Ephraim wrote on March 13:

In the nights, during shifts, we hear the “music” of artillery. The front keeps coming closer. Two days ago they were at Podhorce, 15 kms away! The windows were shaking to the blasts of cannon. But the Germans, damn it, pushed them back to a point 35 kms from us. There they stand and shoot. What bad fortune! Tarnopol has been liberated and we are not.

On March 26, Ephraim noted that it was the 1,000th day he had spent living under German occupation: “The 1,000 days we’ve spent in the Reich are like 1,000 years. With my whole heart I wish the Fuhrer and his admirers to have 1,000 such days …”

And he had months left to endure before he would see freedom.

On July 3, the second anniversary of the massacre at the Khotyn Fortress, Ephraim was using the outhouse when he saw a car stop and two Germans emerge with two men and a child. The Germans shot all three of them and left their bodies by the road. The victims, he found out later, were Jews who had been caught hiding nearby.

Liberation finally came to Jelechowice on July 16, 1944, as noted by a single sentence in red pencil in Ephraim’s diary: “THE BOLSHEVIKS HAVE ARRIVED!!!” He was sixteen years old, and had survived 1,111 days under the Germans.

On the third day after liberation, he recorded,

Mother, Auntie and I went to town. Zloczow made a terrible impression on us. Only bombed, burnt houses, torn wires on the road. A mass of troops on the way to Lvov. Our house is burnt. The neighbors — who couldn’t really understand how we managed to survive — said that the Germans had set the house on fire because it contained the archives of the Gestapo.

In the house, which was inhabited by the Gestapo unit, we found our dining room furniture in one of the rooms. It looked strange to me. That’s precisely what we need: a big table, or a buffet …

We haven’t met Jews.

Ephraim’s last diary entry was on July 29. He wrote of finally encountering some other survivors:

Maybe twenty people, perhaps thirty … All stood and cried. For sure I don’t have to write that picture down in the diary. I’ll remember it to the end of my life. All the Jews, the ten thousand Jews of Zloczow, were praying together in one small room. I heard the heart-rending sobbing, the wailing, the “Magnified and sanctified be His great name” prayer for the dead, and the “God, full of compassion” one, and I understood once and for all that they, we, address somebody who was absent when needed, and perhaps now wasn’t needed any longer, or maybe simply never existed. It was noontime and

The diary ends in mid-sentence.

Ephraim remained in Poland for over a decade after the war. He attended engineering school for two years, then switched his studies to theater. He moved to Israel in 1957. There he changed his family name from Sternschuss to Sten.

In Israel, Ephraim married, had children, and had a successful career as an author, actor, director and playwright for both stage and radio. But for decades he kept his diary hidden and did not speak of his Holocaust experiences to anyone.

Although he had a normal existence in his adopted country, he never recovered emotionally from the trauma of the war, describing it as “the load crushing my soul.”

He had thought, he said, once he left Poland, that he might finally “become a regular human being. But the world wouldn’t let me.”

In the 1990s, Ephraim returned to Zloczow, which is now part of Ukraine and called Zolochiv. Two of his Ukrainian rescuers had died, but Ephraim had a tearful reunion with Hryc Tyz, who told him, “You are my relatives. I didn’t believe I’d be lucky to yet see somebody from my family.”

His four-day trip inspired him to dig out his diary and translate it into Hebrew so that his children could read it. The diary was published in English in 2006, with annotations by an older Ephraim fifty years after the fact, under the title 1111 Days in My Life Plus Four.

Ephraim Sten died in 2004.

The Khotyn Fortress is a major tourist attraction in Ukraine and is considered one of the nation’s most stunning castles. In a nearby field, a “foul-smelling marsh” where “the grass is high and thick,” is a memorial for the 3,500 Jews (but not Ephraim’s dad) who were murdered there in July 1941.

* Zloczow answered to the sovereignty of the Austro-Hungarian Empire until 1918.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Executions Survived,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Known But To God,Lucky to be Alive,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Ukraine,Wartime Executions

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1533: The witch of Schiltach

Add comment April 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1775: A robber under the apartments of Joseph Jekyll

Add comment April 11th, 2018 Headsman

We owe this date’s entry to Joseph Jekyll, a young gentleman (kin to the late judge of the same name whom Alexander Pope had once teased as an “odd old Whig/Who never changed his principle or wig”) who had just taken up residence in Paris in his 22nd year. Just a year later, he would be back in Albion’s soul, bound for his life’s calling as barrister, M.P., and celebrated wit.

Jekyll’s correspondence with his father shows him consumed with a worldly young man’s affairs, alternately French society (in whose salons he left a happy impression) and Europe’s churn of news and rumors. But we catch a glimpse in one of his first letters of a scene to which, perhaps, young Jekyll soon became as inured as most Frenchmen: an exceptionally brutal execution right outside the window of his quarters.

What follows is from Jekyll’s letter dated Ash Wednesday, April 12, 1775.


The police of this country is much commended, and deservedly; yet in Paris I was assured murders were so frequent that it is customary to see five or six bodies to be owned in the morning at a place called the Morgue, and there are nets on the Pont-neuf let down every night to receive persons thrown over by banditti. The morning we saw the Greve there was a gibbet erected. We inquired if there would be much crowd, and were told “No,” for there was generally an execution every day.

The road from Paris hither is full of crosses, with inscriptions to perpetuate the infamy of some robber or murderer. We lodge in a beautiful place or square, and saw from our balcony yesterday evening a criminal broke on the wheel. He arrived at five o’clock in the evening, in a cart guarded by the marechaussee (who constantly patrol the roads). He was attended by a cordelier, and held in his hands two laths nailed together in the form of a cross. He had received the tonsure and unction, and, while he was undressing, the crowd around the scaffold (which was far from being great) sang a voluntary requiem. The executioner, a very spruce fellow in a bag and a bien poudre, extended the criminal’s bare arms and legs on a St. Andrew’s cross, which had two deep notches under the long bones of each limb; then with an iron crow, bent like the blade of a scythe, struck him nine violent blows, the last across the reins. [kidneys] Thus with two fractures in every limb, at each of which he cried out Mon Dieu! the agonising wretch was untied and thrown on the forewheel of a waggon elevated about four feet above the scaffold. The holy father drew a chair near him, and muttered something during his last gasps. At night the body was exposed in the neighbouring forest. Horrible and frequent as these executions are (for there are twelve more now in the chatelet here under the like condemnation), their effects are as insufficient as ours in England. The crime of the unfortunate creature we saw yesterday was burglary, as we learnt from his sentence, which is posted up at every corner in the streets.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Theft

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2015: A man in al-Shaddadah, “I won’t forgive you”

Add comment January 26th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2015, Islamic State militants occupying the Syrian oil city of al-Shaddadah or al-Shaddadi horrifically beheaded a man on a public square.

Just what action was compassed in his alleged offense of “insulting Allah” is not known; neither so far as I can find was his name. But he fought his killers furiously, and four men were required to wrestle him into the dust and immobilize him for the executioner’s sword. “I won’t forgive you, I am not the one who did it but you did Arabs and civilians of al-Shadadi,” he cried out to townspeople unwilling or unable to lift a finger on his behalf against the butchers.

Al-Shaddadah was recaptured from ISIS in February 2016.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Beheaded,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,ISIS/ISIL,Known But To God,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Syria

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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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638: The garrison of Gaza, by their Muslim conquerors

1 comment December 17th, 2017 Headsman

By the early 600s, Roman and Persian armies had been trading blows for so many centuries that an eternal continuation of their Near East derby must have seemed a certainty. Here a raid into Mesopotamia, there a clash in the Taurus Mountains, border provinces shifting back and forth … countless dynasties had come and gone, world religions risen and fallen, and always there were the Romans and the Persians. It was the way of the cosmos ever since Carrhae.

Tribes boiling out of the Arabian desert were about to reorder the firmament.

After an exhausting and pointless struggle* stretching back generations, Byzantium under the emperor Heraclius had rallied in the late 620s to re-establish its formerly longstanding control of the Levant — incidentally pushing Persia’s Sassanid Empire to the brink of collapse.

Neither polity would enjoy much leave to lick its wounds.

The Byzantines’ first passing skirmish with Muslim warriors had occurred in 629, when the Prophet Muhammad was still alive. By the time of Muhammad’s death and the succession of the Caliphate in 632, Islam had all of Arabia firmly in hand and would begin the dazzling expansion destined within a single lifetime to carry the Quran from the Pillars of Hercules to the Indus valley — greatly facilitated by the scanty resistance offered by is battle-wearied neighbors in Constantinople and Ctesiphon.

You will come upon a people who live like hermits in monasteries, believing that they have given up all for God. Let them be and destroy not their monasteries. And you will meet other people who are partisans of Satan and worshippers of the Cross, who shave the centre of their heads so that you can see the scalp. Assail them with your swords until they submit to Islam or pay the Jizya.

-Words of Caliph Abu Bakr to his armies setting out for Syria in 634

After striking Mesopotamia (and crushing an internal rebellion), Caliphate armies pressed into Byzantine Syria and Palestine in 634 and soon controlled it — eventually delivering a decisive, nay world-altering, defeat to the Byzantine Christians at the Battle of Yarmouk in August 636.

The martyrology of Christians said to have been put to death on this date in 637 or 638 may be rated among the artifacts left to the shocked Romans; the victims would have numbered among the garrison in Gaza which would not fall to the Muslims until September 637.

The below is excerpted from Robert Hoyland‘s Seeing Islam as Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings on Early Islam. Although the author is skeptical of the account’s historicity — preserved as it was only by a centuries-later third-hand fragment — the traumatic cultural memory it speaks to can hardly be doubted.


A Vatican manuscript of the tenth or eleventh century preserves for us an account of the martyrdom of the Byzantine garrison of Gaza at the time of the Arab conquests. It is written in crude Latin, but many of its expressions reveal it to be a translation from Greek. It informs us that the incident occurred “in the Christ-beloved city of Gaza … in the twenty-seventh year of the God-crowned emperor Heraclius” (636-37), then continues:

It happened at that time regarding the godless Saracens that they besieged the Christ-beloved city of Gaza and, driven by necessity, the citizens sought a treaty. This was done. The Saracens indeed gave to them a pledge, except to the soldiers who were captured in that city. Rather, marching into the city and seizing the most Christian soldiers, they put them in prison. On the next day ‘Amr (Ambrus) ordered the Christ-holy soldiers to be presented. Once brought before him, he constrained them to desist from the confession of Christ and from the precious and life-giving cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. Since they would not consent, ‘Amr ordered their wives, children and weapons to be separated from them, and again to put them in prison.

Thirty days later they were transferred to a prison in Eleutheropolis for two months, then to a prison in “Theropolis” for three months before being taken to Jerusalem. There they are urged by the patriarch Sophronius to stand firm and accept martyrdom. After a further ten months incarceration ‘Amr wrote to “Ammiras who was commander in the holy city,” recommending that he execute a number of them if they still refused to deny Christ. Finding them obdurate, Ammiras has their chief Callinicus and nine others beheaded on 11 Novebember 638 “outside the city in front of the gates,” where they are buried by Sophronius. The rest are sent back a month or so later to ‘Amr in Eleutheropolis and given a final chance to comply. Unanimously, however, they witness that they are “servants of Christ, son of the living God” and “prepared to die for him who died and rose for us,” thus sealing their fate. Their bodies were bought for 3000 solidi and the church of the Holy Trinity was erected over their burial place at Eleutheropolis. The date given for their martyrdom is Thursday 17 December (which tallies for 638), indiction 13 (639-640), year 28 of Heraclius (September 637-September 638).

Since the choice of conversion or death seems mostly to have been reserved for Arab Christians and apostates from Islam, one is immediately suspicious of this account. It may be that these soldiers were made an example of for some particular cause, but there are other reasons for being wary of this text. In the first place, its provenance is unknown, since the Vatican manuscript containing it is our only witness. Secondly, it is very likely that we have merely a summary of a much longer piece. The changes of venue occur at a bewildering pace and with no explanation or elaboration, ‘Amr’s identity is not indicated, and the manner of death of the 50 remaining soldiers is not mentioned at all, even though this is usually a subject of much interest in martyrologies. Furthermore, one would expect the impassioned exhortation to martyrdom by the revered Sophronius and the emotive scene of him burying the martyrs to be accorded more than the paltry eight lines found in our version.

Perhaps most likely of all is that the garrison was put to death simply for resisting the Muslims, a fate meted out to Byzantine soldiers elsewhere, and that this was taken up by a later writer and recasted as a tale of martyrdom. So a kernel of truth may well lie behind the text, but later reworking and crude translation into Latin has obscured it beyond recognition. The only feature still clear in our epitome is the apologetic intent. For example, ‘Amr is labelled as “impious,” “devil,” “hateful to God” and “most cruel,” and the Arabs themselves described as “impious” and “godless.”

* Robin Pierson covers these years of backstory in depth in his History of Byzantium podcast; he’s interviewed for an overview of the Byzantine-Sassanid War(s) in a premium episode of the War Nerd podcast here.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Caliphate,Execution,God,History,Israel,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Palestine,Soldiers,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1950: Shooting on Seoul’s Execution Hill

Add comment December 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1950, South Korean police shot more than 100 alleged Communists on a hill outside Seoul. It was just one day amid a weeklong bloodbath that claimed a reported 800 or more, although December 15 was the one that helped to thrust the horrors into public consciousness in the West.

These mass executions occurred in the paroxysm after the North Korean capital of Pyongyang — briefly captured by the United Nations offensive earlier in 1950 — was retaken by Chinese-supported Communist forces in early December.

These were themselves only the most recent installment of numerous indiscriminate mass murders that had scarred the South Korean rear once Chinese intervention in the summer of 1950 turned the tide of the war. A South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation from the 2000s estimated that the collective death toll of countless such executions could “conservatively” run to 100,000-plus: “the worst tragedy of 20th century South Korea,” as one commission member provocatively characterized it.

In a Kafkaesque bureaucratic twist, many of those rounded up for execution were culled from the rolls of the “National Guidance League”, an organ set up by the Seoul government to re-educate former leftists. Enlistment to the League was incentivized by extra rations pushed by local officials with signup quotas to make, and that was just great for everyone until that same state decided to turn it into an expedient roster of fifth columnists.

“The authorities pressed us to join the league,” one aged survivor said at a 2009 news conference. “We had no idea that we were joining a death row.”

American officials directing the South Korean army downplayed all this as it was occurring. Even when the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea remained under the dictatorial administration of its wartime president Syngman Rhee, whose commitment to strangling leftist dissent extended so far as hanging the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. For many years the wartime massacres could be no more than murmured at.

The chaos of war helped bring the executions to momentary prominence in December 1950, however, when western conscripts bivouacked down adjacent to the capital’s “execution hill” and were aghast to witness what was happening there.

“A wave of disgust and anger swept through American and British troops who either have witnessed or heard the firing squads in action in the Seoul area during the last two days,” reported the United Press on December 17, 1950. (via the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times of the same date) On Friday, December 15, those soldiers “were horrified upon seeing truckloads of old men, women, youths and several children lined up before open graves and shot down by South Korean military police with rifles and machineguns.

“One American captain George Graff reported he kicked aside the dirt lightly covering one of the bodies and found it still twitching.”

Deeply shocked, one British soldier wrote to the government “wondering which side was right in Korea.”

Revulsion among these forces and their newspaper-reading publics threatened to badly erode support for the mission — a point made forcefully by the Archbishop of York in a letter to the London Times (December 20, 1950):

Sir, —

I hope that our Government will convey to the South Korean Government the horror and detestation with which the people of this country have read the accounts of the wholesale execution of suspected Communist sympathizers. Your Correspondent says it is reported that some of the murdered women “carried babies on their backs.” If these barbarous executions continue, all sympathy with South Korea will vanish, and instead there will be a general demand that the forces of the United Nations should no longer be used to protect a Government responsible for these atrocities. I am glad to see that British soldiers on the spot already have shown their anger at these killings.

Yours faithfully,
Cyril Ebor
Bishopthorpe, York, Dec. 18

Christian ministers in Korea likewise raised alarm over these atrocities with both United Nations and South Korean authorities. Due regard for humanity and/or public opinion led the United Nations on December 17th to exhume the execution grounds looking for evidence of child executions. But the very same day, according to the U.P. (via the Cleveland Plain Delaer, Dec. 18, 1950),

South Koreans hauled another batch of prisoners to snow-covered “Execution Hill” this afternoon and shot them.

Evidently to escape the eyes of angry American G.I.s and British Tommies, the prisoners apparently were forced to lie down in trenches where they were killed.

The new executions occurred only two hours after U.N. observers had supervised an exhumation of bodies lying in four trench-like graves on the hill and after 29th Brigade Commander Tom Brodie had told his officers he was not prepared to tolerate further executions in his area.

As layer after layer of bodies were disinterred from the mountain graveyard, Fusillier Capt. Bill Ellery, tall, moustached British officer, said coldly and precisely what all watching British and American troops were thinking.

“We don’t do this sort of thing in my country.”

A South Korean apologized. The prisons were so crowded with Communists sentenced to death that Execution Hill was the only solution.

“There are so many to execute,” he said.

An abatement of visible-to-western-press executions and the cosmetic expedient of a small Christmas amnesty appears to have stanched the immediate threat to homefront support for the war — which would continue for another two and a half years.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Known But To God,Korea,Mass Executions,Shot,South Korea,Wartime Executions,Women

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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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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Innocent Bystanders,Japan,Known But To God,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1781: Twelve Aymara rebels

Add comment October 26th, 2017 Headsman

My very esteemed friend. [I write to you] in the midst of all the travails I have suffered during these two sieges, the first lasting 109 days and the second 15. In both of them, more than 14,000 will have perished in this unhappy city, the great majority through starvation; others were shot, and still others were beheaded by the rebels in the fields that many attempted to cross even though they knew that the rebels would not show them any mercy if they looked Spanish in any way …

There is no Indian who is not a rebel; all die willingly for their Inca King, without coming to terms with God or his sacred law. On October 26th twelve rebels were beheaded and none of them were convinced to accept Jesus; and the same has happened with another 600 that have died in executions during both sieges …

In these nine months we have survived eating biscuits and to do this we hae been taking the tiles from the roofs of our houses. I, who find myself taking care of the gunpowder during the day, have estranged almost all the city. Nobody wants to fight willingly … I have threatened them with military execution and have promised to spare their heads as long as they obey me …

More troops are needed from both Viceroyalties or from Spain, some 8,000 to 10,000 men to make Our Sovereign’s name respected throughout the entire Sierra and to finally, once and for all, cut off some heads and be finished with all these cursed relics. We need, I repeat, seasoned troops and these as soon as possible.

-Juan Bautista de Zavala, in a November 1781 letter after surviving Tupac Katari‘s 1781 indigenous siege of La Paz (via The Tupac Amaru and Catarista Rebellions: An Anthology of Sources)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Known But To God,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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