Posts filed under 'Pirates'

1573: Hans von Erschausen, Seeräuber

Add comment September 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1573, the Hanseatic city of Hamburg beheaded the Seeräuber Hans von Erschausen with his crew, leaving naught but a vast row of pike-mounted heads and some excellent woodcuts.

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1961: Alvin Table Jr. and Billy Wayne Sees, Bahamas pirates

Add comment May 9th, 2014 Golde Singer

On this date in 1961, two modern-day (but somewhat inept) pirates sailed into the history books by becoming the first U.S. citizens to be executed in the Bahamas.

Alvin Table Jr., 26, mounted the gallows in Nassau at 7 a.m.; William (Billy Wayne) Sees, 21, followed an hour later. Each was declared dead within three minutes.

The bizarre adventure that preceded the hangings had begun a year earlier in Texas, where Table wooed 18-year-old Barbara Fisher briefly before whisking her off to Mexico to be married. The couple returned to San Antonio and linked up with Sees. (In a post-crime interview, Barbara described Sees as Alvin’s friend, but it’s unclear how the two ever met. Table, a Californian, had a history of at least one bad marriage, some bad checks and an assault on the West Coast; Sees, a native of Arkansas, had a history of assault in the south and, according to one account, a conviction for murder in New York State.)

However the liaison was forged, the trio worked their way across the south, cashing bad checks along the way to pay for the trip. They arrived in Florida in April 1960 and, with the law closing in, tried to buy a boat in Key West with yet another bogus check. When the sale took longer than planned, they simply took the boat and headed for Cuba.

Their plan apparently was to take refuge in Cuba — or, as Barbara put it, to “get away from it all.” Unfortunately, their boating skills failed them, and they ran aground off Elbow Key in the Bahamas. (It didn’t help that they hadn’t filled the boat with gas before leaving Key West.)

For three days, they took refuge in the island lighthouse — and, according to Barbara, they “had a pretty good time”. But the good times lasted about as long as the food held out.

About the time they started to panic, a charter fishing boat, the Muriel III, spotted the castaways and radioed the Coast Guard of the situation. Sees swam out to the Muriel, clambered aboard, and turned a gun on the passengers. When the captain, Angus Boatwright, grabbed a rifle to defend himself, Sees shot him.

Alvin Table then joined Sees aboard the boat, and they let the four fishermen swim to shore, taking the captain’s body with them on a raft made of life jackets. Their attempts to keep the first mate, Kent Hokanson, on board, failed when Hokanson simply jumped overboard and also started swimming for the island. Table and Sees, apparently deciding that time was of the essence in the situation, let Hokanson go and fled the scene.

During the gun battle, Barbara Table was in the lighthouse, packing up the trio’s belongings for departure. She heard the gunshots, and on finding out what had transpired, wisely chose not to stand by her man. The Coast Guard eventually picked up all the survivors and flew them to Nassau.

Table and Sees did reach Cuba, but they were arrested there after again running aground — this time near Isabela de Sagua, 200 miles east of Havana. At the request of the British government, Cuba extradited the pair to the Bahamas. They were both charged with and convicted of murder and piracy, despite Table’s efforts to distance himself from the murder by pointing out that he wasn’t on board the boat when it happened. An appeal to the Privy Council in London fell on deaf ears, and the Americans were sentenced to hang.

Barbara Table was briefly held in the Bahamas on a charge of grand larceny in the theft of the boat but was later released; officials cited “a lack of evidence.” Mrs. Table returned to her hometown of San Antonio, Texas, and quietly disappeared.

On a side historical note, the Bahamas retains the death penalty today, although it conducts actual executions so infrequently that the anti-death penalty watchdog Hands Off Cain considers it “abolitionist de facto”. According to researcher William Lofquist, no executions have been carried out in the Bahamas in the last decade. Lofquist observes that in today’s Bahamian justice system, “death sentences rather than executions have become the measure of the state’s resolve to maintain ‘order’.” Some of this is due to restrictions placed on the nation by the Privy Council in London, but while some chafe at those restrictions, attempts to create an appellate system separate from the Privy Council have failed. For more on Lofquist’s analysis of executions in the Bahamas over the centuries, and the cultural environment that shaped them, read his complete study. (pdf link to his “Identifying the Condemned: Reconstructing and analyzing the history of executions in The Bahamas,” The International Journal of Bahamian Studies, 16)

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1831: Charles Gibbs, the pirate

Add comment April 22nd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1831, pirate Charles Gibbs hanged on Ellis Island.

This Rhode Island native followed his father’s trade in buccaneering and made an adventurously brutal life on the waves during the early 19th century’s brief piracy recrudescence.

Neither Gibbs himself nor subsequent writers fascinated by him shrank from embellishing his career, according to Dead Men Tell No Tales: The Life and Legends of the Pirate Charles Gibbs. Awaiting the gallows, Gibbs floated the story that he had first gone to sea under the Stars and Stripes during the War of 1812; that this turned out to be a fabrication has not prevented its repetition down the years.

His first corsair crew was the Maria, a privateer out of Colombia outfitted for the independence war against Spain. Gibbs — back when he was known by his birth name, James Jeffers — joined a mutiny that overthrew the irritating shackles of a letter of marque in favor of the pleasures of independent predation.

It was a fine time for such entrepreneurship; the recent upheaval of Europe’s Napoleonic Wars and the New World breakaway provinces had preoccupied the Spanish navy.

For the next several years, the raiders — “principally Spaniards and Americans” — preyed on commercial shipping in the Caribbean, cruelly murdering the entire crews of their captured prizes, whose booty they would then sell in Havana.

The voyages of the Maria and her successor ships with this band would suffice for a full pirate’s rollick, though they were only the first chapter of Gibbs’s career. For instance, by the time Gibbs had risen to leadership of the crew,

a Dutch ship from Curacao was captured, with a cargo of West India goods, and a quantity of silver plate. The passengers and crew, to the number of 30, were all destroyed, with the exception of a young female about 17, who fell upon her knees and implored Gibbs to save her life. The appeal was successful, and he promised to save her, though he knew it would lead to dangerous consequences among his crew. She was carried to Cape Antonio [Cuba], and kept there about two months; but the dissatisfaction increased until it broke out at last into open mutiny, and one of the pirates was shot by Gibbs for daring to lay hold of her with a view of beating out her brains. Gibbs was compelled in the end ot submit her fate to a council of war, at which it was decided that the preservation of their own lives made her sacrifice indispensable. He therefore acquiesced in the decision, and gave orders to have her destroyed by poison.

That’s from the “Confession of Gibbs the Pirate” elicited from the condemned raiders in the days before his execution, and widely reprinted in American papers. (My quotes are from the version that appeared on April 9, 1831, in the Baltimore Patriot.) In it, the title character struggles to recall the many ships he has hijacked over the years. “Brig Jane, of Liverpool” — “Brig (name forgotten) of New York” — “Two French Brigs, in the Gulf of Mexico” — “Bark Dido, of Bremen” — “Ship Earl of Moria, of London”. Over and over his entries end with the words vessel and crew destroyed.

There were some fortune exceptions, but the pirates “knew that the principle inculcated by the old maxim that ‘dead men tell no tales’ was the only safe one for them.” Overall, his confessions involve him in “the robbery of more than forty vessels, and in the destruction of more than twenty, with their entire crews.” He might have gone to the gallows with literally hundreds of murders to his conscience.

What can be said for certain is that the USS Enterprise trashed Gibbs’s pirate fleet in 1821 and sent our man fleeing on foot into the Cuban mountains.

This incident aside, Americans’ naval presence was still not yet substantial enough to consistently trouble pirates. American ports, too, were quite ready to accept the coinage spent by pirates; the Spanish embassy would complain to Washington of the easy egress which Gibbs too availed. He even took a passenger ship from Boston to Liverpool where he dissipated a fortune in the vain pursuit of a respectable woman.

The late 1820s find him back in his familiar habit of seagoing carnage as a privateer for Argentina in its war against Brazil. The whole Atlantic was his home, and its many conflicts each offered the prospect of regular employment (or sudden, violent death).

When Argentina and Brazil made peace, Gibbs made for Algiers then under French blockade. He was, alas, unable himself to slip the blockade and thus frustrated of his design to seize Gallic prizes for the Barbary pirates.

Instead, he settled for joining the crew of a brig called the Vineyard — and promptly executing a mutiny. It was for this revolt, and the murder of the captain and first officer which it entailed, that Gibbs eventually swung: the mutineers scuttled the ship and struggled ashore in Long Island, where he and his fellow mutineer Thomas J. Wansley were seized and sentenced to death at a trial in New York City. While the Vineyard was the specific matter at hand in that case, and more than sufficient on its own to condemn them, the long and bloody career that preceded it became the talk of the nation. As the foregoing excerpts will indicate, they enjoyed at least a last consolation of celebrity, for they occupied the weeks approaching execution entertaining a slew of curious visitors.

For some reason, Gibbs’s skull wound up in New York’s John M. Mossman Lock Museum. (“Lock” isn’t part of the benefactor’s name. The museum exhibits locks, but also has a skull labeled “James D. Jefferson, known as Gibbs the Pirate”.)

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1835: Captain Pedro Gilbert and the Spanish Pirates

Add comment June 11th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1835, four Spanish pirates — it was supposed to be more — were put to death at Boston.

Their captain, the Catalan Pedro Gilbert, was chief among them in death as he was in life. Three years previous, he had commanded the buccaneer schooner with the deceptively cuddly name Panda out of Havana. It’s for Gilbert that “Gilbert’s Bar” is named, a historic sandbar off Stuart, Florida where the man reputedly liked to lure ships aground.*

Gilbert and his crew of forty or so souls — Spaniards, Portuguese, South Americans, half-castes, and at least one west African — waylaid the Salem, Mass. brig Mexican.

After hours ransacking the ship, relieving it of $20,000 in silver, the raiders locked the crew of their prize below decks and put the Mexican to the torch. After the Panda departed, those imprisoned unfortunates managed to break out of the death trap in time to control the blaze and return to port.

The incident thereby reported, the Panda would in due time be cornered off the African coast and sunk by a British ship. A dozen of the salty brigands fished out of the sea were eventually extradited to the U.S. for an eventful fourteen-day trial.


One of the crew of the Mexican, called upon to identify a member of the pirate crew who tried to drown him in a burning ship, strikes the accused corsair.

A defense lawyer laboring mightily in a half-lost cause managed to procure not-guilty verdicts for five of the crew on grounds of superior orders. The cabin boy (15 at the time of the raid) and the aforementioned west African were among these men spared.

The four who hanged today — Pedro Gilbert, Juan Montenegro, Manuel Castillo, and Angel Garcia — were meant to have been seven. Two of the seven received stays of execution; we’ll return to them in a moment.

The other man in the condemned party, Manuel Boyga, cheated his executioner, kind of, by exploiting a guard’s momentary inattentiveness to slash open his own carotid artery with a sharp bit of tin. He bled out too quickly for his executioners to “help” him, but because this efficient (near-?)suicide occurred immediately before the hanging, Boyga’s unconscious form was still borne in a chair to the scaffold and hung along with his four quick mates, just to make sure. Boyga might well have been dead already; if not, the hanging only hastened his demise by moments.

As to the other two: the ship’s carpenter Francisco Ruiz, it was thought, might have been crazy. But the Spanish-speaking physicians who eventually examined him would pronounce his ravings a simulation; he was accordingly hanged in a follow-up execution on September 11, 1835.

The last man was Bernardo de Soto, the first mate and the owner of the Panda.

De Soto’s pretty black-eyed wife back home caught wind of her man’s fate and made the Atlantic crossing to comfort her husband in prison … and to prostrate herself before the U.S. president Andrew Jackson who had the final say for clemency in this federal case. Duly smitten by this pleasing romantic flourish, Jackson did better than merely sparing de Soto’s life: he gave the condemned pirate a free pardon on July 6, 1835.

* Gilbert’s Bar today has the last remaining “House of Refuge”, once one of several standing 19th century encampments built to shelter any wayfarer who shipwrecked in the vicinity.

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2013: Naw Kham, Mekong drug lord

1 comment March 1st, 2013 Headsman

Today in Kunming, China, Burmese drug lord Naw Kham was executed by lethal injection along with three of his associates.

Naw Kham (or Nor Kham), a Burmese Shan, ran a sizable gang of drug traffickers/paramilitaries/pirates, the Hawngleuk Militia, in the Golden Triangle.

In addition to heroin smuggling, this gang also shook down for protection money the many Chinese commercial shippers coming down the Mekong River, and wantonly raided shippers that held out on them. He was untouchable in his lawless zone (with the possible protection of Burmese military to boot) for more than a decade.

Times may have started passing Naw Kham by in the 2000s.*

China’s economic boom has driven more shipping, and a search for investment outlets for Chinese capital, both inevitably increasing its presence on the economically developing Mekong. Ultimately this had to come at Naw Kham’s expense.

He had hit Chinese shippers before to the annoyance of Beijing, but matters came to a head when the kingpin allegedly retaliated against the flouting of his “taxes” by massacring 13 Chinese sailors in 2011 on board two tightfisted merchantmen. (“Allegedly” because Naw Kham blamed the Thai military for this slaughter, and some people believe him.)

At any rate, China put the screws to the drug lord, not only pressuring Southeast Asian governments for his capture but directly hunting him with special forces. Early in 2012, Naw Kham was arrested and his gang broken up after a multinational manhunt; the leader was extradited from Laos to face Chinese justice with five of his associates.** The accused had little recourse but to throw themselves on the mercy of the court.

Executed with Naw Kham — and underscoring the multinational complexion of his outfit — were Hsang Kham (a Thai), Zha Xika (a Lao), and Yi Lai (stateless). The other two defendants received a suspended (reprieved) death sentence, and an eight-year prison term.


Naw Kham being led to an execution van on March 1, 2013. Two hours of footage of the “Mekong River murderers” walking their green mile was broadcast on CCTV News, although not the executions themselves.

The case isn’t entirely closed with his date’s executions, however. China is still pressuring Thailand to bring to book Thai troops whom China says colluded (at the very least) in the Mekong murders. The future direction of that investigation is quite unclear.

* China, Burma, Thailand, and Laos, inked a 2001 pact to regularize shipping on the Mekong. It contained no provision allowing for stateless narco-buccaneers.

** It’s noteworthy that this is a non-Chinese citizen being extradited to China for a crime not on Chinese soil.

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1804: Little Harpe and Peter Alston, Mississippi pirates

2 comments February 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1804, two known as John Setton/Sutton and James May were hanged at Greenville, Mississippi.

They were, in fact, Wiley “Little” Harpe and his outlaw partner Peter Alston — the survivors (well, up until then) of a notorious gang of Mississippi River pirates and frontier highwaymen.

Their villainous coterie had plagued the Mississippi (river) and the proximate byways from Kentucky down to Mississippi (state), making a couple of spots on the great river legendary pirate hideouts in the process.

With a price on the head of the notorious leader Samuel Mason, “Sutton” and “May” coldly murdered their captain to turn in his head for the reward.

They got their reward alright. They were recognized as Mason’s own fellow-bandits, and themselves put on trial for piracy.


The Harpe Brothers

This date’s hanging was not only the end of the Mason gang — it was the end of the Harpe Brothers.

Micajah Harpe (“Big Harpe”) and Wiley Harpe were brothers or cousins who cut a bloody swathe through the early American Republic, such that some have acclaimed the Harpes that young nation’s first serial killers. They were, in one historian’s words, “the most brutal monsters of the human race.”

Heading west out of North Carolina after Revolutionary War service as Tory irregulars, the Harpes made for Knoxville, Tennessee, kidnapping wives for themselves along the way. When they were rousted out of their cabin on accusations of livestock-rustling in 1797, their notorious careers really began in earnest.

This was, then, the extreme western frontier of the United States, and the Harpes were consequently able to plunder in wilderness impunity.

And they slew with a frequency and savagery far in excess of the professional demands of a bush robber.

Big Harp confessed before dying in 1798 to 20 murders, probably not counting the babies. Estimates are as high as 40, but usually around 30. After two killings, one in Knox County and one on the Wilderness Trail, the Harps left Tennessee in December 1798 for Kentucky, where they killed two traveling men from Maryland…

The final stretch of slaughter took place soon after this, in July 1798, when the Harps returned to Eastern Tennessee. The victims included a farmer named Bradbury; a man named Hardin; a boy named Coffey; William Ballard, who was cut open, filled with stones, and dumped in the Holston River; James Brassel, with his throat ripped apart on Brassel’s Knob; John Tully, father of eight. On the Marrowbone Creek in south central Kentucky, John Graves and his teenaged son, out planting crops, had their heads axed. Moving toward Logan County, the Harps came upon a little girl, whom they killed, as they did a young slave on his way to the mill. Once in Logan County, near today’s Adairville, near the Whippoorwill River, they butchered an entire migrating family asleep in their camp, but for one son who survived. (Source)

TruTV also has an account of them sending a hijacked flatboat passenger over a cliff, and bashing a little girl’s head in against the side of a bridge.

“They murdered all classes and sexes, without distinction,” a Knoxville man* recounted years later, “not for plunder but for the love of shedding human blood.” We don’t have Little Harpe’s conscience on the record, but Big Harpe would only express remorse for one of his dozens of homicides: smashing his own infant child against a tree to make it stop crying.

That sentiment would come at the end, when Big Harpe had been cornered by a posse after murdering a frontier woman. The widower in that posse halved the Harpe menace by hewing Big Harpe’s head from his shoulders.

For generations after the subsequent roosting-spot of this deathly visage — presented to a justice of the peace to verify the man’s death (and pocket the price on his literal head), then hung up for public display by the intersection of Morgenfield, Henderson, and Maidensville Roads in Union County — was known as Harpe’s Head.

Little Harpe’s subsequent career with Sam Mason and his own violent demise capped the Harpe brothers’ nefarious legacy.

Their name was so infamous that many of their family changed it … including, according to rumor, the ancestors of legendary Wild West lawman Wyatt Earp.

* J.W.M. Breazeale was part of the posse that hunted down Big Harpe, and a witness to Big Harpe’s death, and gives the outlaw the (possibly tall-tale) last words directed to his slaughterer in mid-beheading: “You are a God damned rough butcher, but cut on and be damned.”

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1536: Skipper Clement, rebel

Add comment September 9th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1536, the Danish rebel Skipper Clement was put to death at Viborg.

Clement (English Wikipedia entry | Danish) was a naval officer for the Danish king Christian II.

When said heavy-handed monarch was deposed by his own uncle Frederick, Clement turned privateer … and when said deposing-uncle Frederick died in 1533, Clement entered the ensuing civil war between supporters of the still-imprisoned ex-king Christian II and those who backed Frederick’s own son Christian III. This was also a social and political war over the Reformation.

Clement went to war for his former boss, Christian II, instigating a 1534 North Jutland uprising of the Catholic peasantry that in October of that year trounced the Protestant noble army sent to suppress it at the Battle of Svenstrope Mose (Svenstrop Bog or Moor).

That battle clinched Clement’s reputation as one of the great peasant-rising leaders, and also clinched for Clement the fate that usually befalls such characters. Shortly after, Clement’s aristocratic ally cut his own deal with Christian III and abandoned the rabble to a vicious counterattack. In December 1534, General Johan Rantzau stormed the rebel strongholdof Aalborg, slaughtering two thousand peasants, reducing freeholding farmers to tenants, and bringing Clement home in chains for a grand finale.

The captured commander languished in his dungeon awaiting the conclusion of the civil war. It took a good year under siege for Rantzau to bring Copenhagen to heel, but once that city capitulated in August 1536, Clement was brought out of storage for use as a victory cigar. (Danish link)

On September 9, 1536, wearing a lead crown to mock his ambition, Clement had his head chopped off, and his remains were dismembered and set up for public display.

Danish speakers may enjoy these short audio narrations of the Svenstrope Mose and Aalborg engagements. Aalborg parents may enjoy sending their children to Skipper Clement International School.

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1730: Olivier Levasseur, “La Buse”

Add comment July 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1730, the pirate Olivier Levasseur was hanged at Reunion Island– legendarily hurling into the crowd cryptic directions to his vast hidden treasure.

Supposedly a bourgeois son of Calais, Levasseur (English Wikipedia entry | French) made his start on the briny deep as a French naval officer-turned-privateer during the War of Spanish Succession, transitioning to full-time buccaneer after that conflict ended in 1714.

By the 1720s — and with a bad eye necessitating that most trite of pirate accessories, the eyepatch — Levasseur had a mixed-race crew raiding the east African coast and the Indian ocean.

His most renowned exploit put him decisively in piracy’s 1%.

Descending upon the Portuguese galleon Cabo — fat with gems and gold bars and loose guineas and silks and a gigantic decorative cross and a noble’s diamond-encrusted +3 vorpal sword, all en route from the wealthy colony of Goa but disarmed at anchor off Reunion Island after having barely survived a storm — Levasseur’s band was able to plunder something on the order of a present-day value well north of £1 billion.


A lot more than that.

This stupendous fortune, even after dividing it democratically with the crew, would cinch Levasseur’s fame, and his fate.

La Buse (“the Buzzard”; alternatively, “la Bouche”, “the mouth”) naturally tried to take advantage of the next available pirate amnesty to cash out and retire, but found that he’d be expected to cough up his loot as part of the deal. So he hoarded his treasure instead, hung up his pirate’s cutlass, and tried to hide out. He was eventually captured casually working as a ship’s pilot off Madagascar and strung up by the French; you can still pour out a rum for him at his grave at Saint-Paul.


By Tonton Bernardo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So much for Levasseur.

The reason we’re still talking about him three centuries on is that he’s alleged,* just before he dropped, to have hurled a bundle of parchments and/or a cryptogram necklace into the crowd assembled to watch him die, crying “find my treasure, who can!” or “my treasure for he who understands!”

And that’s pretty tantalizing stuff, considering the treasure has never since been found.

Levasseur’s boodle, if it did then and does still exist, is thought to be stashed somewhere on the Seychelles island of Mahe, and the slow and tantalizing unraveling of our corsair’s mysterious clues have seduced generations of treasure-hunters right into the present — like this fellow, or this one,** chasing after Masonic codes and rock etchings and Labors of Hercules and the promise of turning a five-figure investment in dynamite and scuba gear into a nine-figure payday and all the Discovery channel specials you can handle.

Until that day comes, Olivier is only a minor cinematic fixture. Basil Rathbone portrayed him (loosely) in the 1935 Errol Flynn vehicle Captain Blood (in that version, Rathbone dies by Flynn’s sword). An accessible treasure of this production, courtesy of YouTube: this 1937 radio drama of that same adventure, voiced by the principal actors:

* Here’s a skeptical take on the whole thing.

** If someone does have to find it, we’re rooting for this guy.

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c. 865: Ragnar Lodbrok, Viking raider

3 comments November 19th, 2011 Headsman

On an unknown date in (perhaps) the 860s, Norse raider Ragnar Lodbrok (or Ragnar Lothbrok) was allegedly put to death in the Indiana Jones-esque manner of being cast into a pit of snakes.

Ragnar is a half-legendary character who plundered France and Britain in the mid-ninth century, the heyday of Viking marauders; he’s also the lead character of the cable TV series Vikings.

He’s known from Scandinavian sagas, like the Ragnarssona Þattr, which describes Ragnar’s final battle after shipwrecking in Northumbria.

At that time, there was a king called Ælla ruling over Northumbria in England. And when he learns that raiders have come to his kingdom, he musters a mighty force and marches against Ragnar with an overwhelming host, and hard and terrible battle ensues. King Ragnar was clad in the silken jacket Aslaug had given him at their parting. But as the defending army was so big that nothing could withstand them, so almost all his men were killed, but he himself charged four times through the ranks of King Aella, and iron just glanced off his silk shirt. Finally he was taken captive and put in a snake-pit, but the snakes wouldn’t come near him. King Aella had seen during the day, as they fought, that iron didn’t bite him, and now the snakes won’t harm him. So he had him stripped of the clothes that he’d been wearing on the day, and at once snakes were hanging off him on all sides, and he left his life there with much courage.

Here’s Ernest Borgnine as Ragnar in the 1958 film The Vikings, dying in a pit full of wild dogs, not snakes. Well, it’s the same animal kingdom.

“How the little pigs would grunt if they knew how the old boar suffers!” he’s supposed to have exclaimed, keeping to the nature theme.

Although Vikings didn’t really seem to need a casus belli to pillage England, the little pigs would in fact do some serious grunting when they found out about the boar: Ragnar’s sons punitive sorties against England martyred the Christian king St. Edmund.

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1851: Col. William Logan Crittenden, nephew of the Attorney General

2 comments August 16th, 2011 Headsman

“An American kneels only to his God, and always faces his enemy,”* declared William Logan Crittenden, refusing to kneel before his executioners in Havana this date in 1851.

This well-bred** Kentuckian veteran of the Mexican-American War ditched a New Orleans customs-house gig when Narciso Lopez formed a private filibustering expedition to try to steal Cuba from the Spanish.

Placed at the head of one of Lopez’s three battalions, Crittenden’s force was cut off and overwhelmed by the Spanish. (The detailed progress of the campaign is described here.)

He and 50 of his command captured with him were all ordered for immediate execution, six at a time, as pirates, with just a few hours’ allowance to take down official statements and scribble their hasty goodbyes. With “not the heart to write to any of my family,” Crittenden sent one to a friend giving his farewells … then, just before the end, dashed off another addressed to the Attorney General of the United States — his uncle, John J. Crittenden.†

Dear Uncle: In a few moments some fifty of us will be shot. We came with Lopez. You will do me the justice to believe that my motive was a good one. I was deceived by Lopez — he, as well as the public press,‡ assured me tat the island was in a state of prosperous revolution.

I am commanded to finish writing at once.

Your nephew,
W.L. Crittenden

I will die like a man

(Some other affecting last letters from Crittenden’s party can be perused here.)

All this scene, including a post-mortem mutilation by the enraged mob of onlookers, became a bloody banner for U.S. Southerners — since expanding the slave power was core to the entire filibustering project.

When word of the shootings reached New Orleans, a crowd sacked the Spanish consulate.

But in the international relations game, the U.S. had disavowed filibustering and its raiders enjoyed no special diplomatic protection. When a number of the later prisoners were returned in chains to Spain, the Millard Fillmore administration asked their release, but had no grounds to demand it. It was a touchy diplomatic situation … one that our late Crittenden’s uncle, as a member of cabinet, was right in the middle of.

Fillmore eventually secured the captives’ release, atoning the insult to the European power’s agents by causing the Spanish colors to be saluted in New Orleans in honor of the birth of the Infanta Isabella.

All this mincing instead of brawling struck a certain variety of hothead as distinctly unmanful.

Our flag has been wantonly insulted in the Caribbean sea … captured citizens of our country [were] sent in a slave ship to the coast of Spain, fettered, according to the custom of that inhuman traffic, and released, not as an acknowledgement of wrong on demand of our government, but as a gracious boon accorded to a friendly suit … Whilst the dying words of Crittenden yet rung in the American ear, and the heart turned sickening away from the mutilated remains of his liberty-loving followers; whilst public indignation yet swelled at the torture which had been inflicted on our captive countrymen, even then we were called upon to witness a further manifestation of the truckling spirit of the administration …

-Jefferson Davis (yes, that one)

* An alternative version has Crittenden declaring that Kentuckians kneel only to their God.

** According to this public domain book (pdf; it’s also on Google books) of the Lopez expedition, William Crittenden’s cousin George Bibb Crittenden — eventually a Confederate general — was among the Texan filibusters to survive the Black Bean Lottery.

William Crittenden’s brother Thomas Theodore Crittenden fought on the Union side of the Civil War, and became Governor of Missouri in 1881. He’s noteworthy for having issued the bounty on outlaw Jesse James that led to the latter’s assassination by Robert Ford.

† Family in the president’s cabinet was just no guarantee of preferential treatment, abroad or at home; just a few years before, a son of the sitting Secretary of War had been hanged at sea for mutiny.

‡ The Spanish press likewise excoriated American yellow journalism in terms that no few present-day scribes would also deserve.

New Orleans papers, there is your work! There is the result of your diragations, of your iniquitous falsehoods, of your placards with large black letters, and your detestable extras … This blood must flow, drop by drop, upon your heads — this blood will torment you in your sleep, for they have lost their lives when you were in security in your houses.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions,Terrorists,USA

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