Posts filed under 'Politicians'

1801: Periya and Chinna Marudhu

Add comment October 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1801, the brothers Periya Marudhu and Chinna Marudhu were hanged from the highest bastion of the fort of Tirupattur by the British — penalty for declaring the kingdom of Sviganga free from the British Empire.

The British East India Company had in the late 18th century established the foundation for the eventual Company Raj controlling India.

Sviganga was a small state only a few decades independent before the Company gobbled it up in 1790. But it proved more proud in its resistance than the Anglos might have expected. The widowed queen Velu Nachiyar put up a furious fight against the British in the 1780s, noted for its pioneering use of the suicide bomber: a Dalit woman who turned herself into a ghee torch and plunged into an enemy armory with explosive effect.

Velu Nachiyar died about 1790, leaving her patrimony to the administration of the Marudhu brothers. (The name is also rendered Marudu or Maruthu.)

The British policy was to rule India indirectly via arrangements with just such local elites. The pre-existing South India administrative class of Palaiyakkarars, better known to the British by the Anglicization “Polygars”, for instance, were simply bought off and put to tax collecting on behalf of the East India Company instead of domestic sovereigns.

These subcontinental subalterns did not prove to be quite as eager for the British yoke as the new hegemon might have hoped. They mounted a sequence of rebellions from 1799 to 1805 in a bid to claw back their autonomy. The British suppressed these risings only with considerable difficulty; an unnamed officer of the 73rd, in a letter published by the London Times on Jan. 7, 1802, paid the tribute of a colonist to his foes: “the Polygars are a race of people who inhabit the jungles and hill parts of India; they are braver than the generality of Indians, and cannot be said ever to have been conquered.”

The Marudhus joined this rebellion, allied with the Polygar Oomaithurai and leading a force pegged at upwards of 2,000. Finally besieged at Kalayar Kovil, the brothers found their fortress reduced and plundered by the British, and themselves delivered into enemy hands for exemplary justice. (Other captives, like Oomaithurai, were hauled further afield for punishment; Oomaithurai was executed on November 16 of the same year at Panchalankurichi.)

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1947: Gyorgy Donath, Hungarian anti-communist

Add comment October 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Hungarian politician Gyorgy Donath was executed for treason as the Hungarian state was came into the hands of the Communists.


Gyorgy Donath awaits hanging in the courtyard of a Budapest prison on October 23, 1947. (Source)

Donath (Hungarian Wikipedia link) stood among the ranks of Eastern European politicians purged by Soviet-directed Communist parties behind the Iron Curtain in the first years of the Cold War — years when Stalin still called the shots for the Communist bloc.

Donath had been a wartime parliamentarian under the banner of Bela Imredy‘s right-wing Party of Hungarian Life.

Had Hungary’s postwar direction been determined by orderly ballot-boxing rather than great power machinations, Donath would have had a voice in it — for it was a conservative party, the Independent Smallholders Party, who won a big hold on government with 57% of the votes in the 1945 elections.

Though the Communists polled just 17% (with a similar tally for the Social Democrats), the General Secretary of the postwar party, Matyas Rakosi,* predicted that the putative defeat would “not play an important role in Communist plans.” And he was right.

Rakosi named his policy in response to the Smallholders “salami tactics” — as in slicing down the opposition piece by piece.

1947 was the knife’s edge.

From their post within the ensuing governing coalition — an outsized foothold relative to their electoral returns, as compelled by the presence of the still-occupying Red Army — the minority Communists in January 1947 announced the discovery of a conspiracy of “small agrarians,” and set about reducing the Smallholders and allies through a series of police raids and show trials.** Donath’s prominence in an irredentist fraternity, the Hungarian Community organization, was denounced the ringleader of the treasonable conspiracy.

He was hanged on October 23 — just eight weeks after a heavily rigged 1947 election put Hungary formally into the Communist camp.

Over the subsequent two years, independent and opposition parties were generally reduced to irrelevance, forced to take the Communist line, or dissolved entirely.

* Rakosi was the man whom Imre Nagy would eventually displace. The more moderate Nagy willingly swept himself up in Hungary’s abortive 1956 revolution against Communist domination. Soviet tanks crushed that revolution; Nagy hanged.

** In neighboring Romania and Bulgaria, similar tragedies were unfolding.

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1621: Rodrigo Calderon, ambitious

Add comment October 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1621, Spain’s once-powerful Marquis of the Seven Churches fell as far as tragedy can drop a man.

Still to this day a Spanish emblem of the perils of ambition, Rodrigo Calderon hailed from the minor nobility in the rebellious Low Countries breaking away from Hapsburg rule.

Displaced to Spain, Calderon had a meteoric rise as the trusted henchman of the Duke of Lerma — who was himself the trusted (some say over-trusted) favorite of the Spanish King Philip III from the moment the latter came to the throne at age 20 in 1598. It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.

Calderon’s who became perhaps Spain’s most powerful figure, and surely its most resented. By Philip’s own decree, nothing came to the royal quill but through his valido Lerma. Lerma dominated access to Philip and to a great extent, Calderon dominated access to Lerma. Both men prospered accordingly.

Calderon cut an operatic character — he’s one of those characters awaiting a suitably coruscating literary treatment, although Bulwer-Lytton gave it a shot — of zealotry mixed with greed. His family was the aristocratic equivalent of “new money”; his father had not been born to the nobility at all, and Calderon hustled to climb so high as he did. He did not mean to forego the emoluments of office, like the flattering Rubens portrait that illustrates this post.*

Inevitably, such a figure attracted the resentment of other courtiers, and not only courtiers.

Calderon almost fell in 1607 for extracting bribes far in excess of what acceptable corruption permitted. But he had by then the open enmity of the queen herself. It’s testimony to Lerma’s power that his patronage sufficed for Calderon to maintain his station in the face of such a powerful foe.

Queen Margaret died in 1611. The cause was complications from childbirth, but rumors, like this anonymous pamphlet, hinted at other hands in her death.

moved by the outcries of the people and the advice of wise and virtuous persons … felt obliged to confront the ill intentions of those who without doubt have caused her death. Her goal was to serve our Lord by promoting justice in the distribution of favors, appointments of good ministers, and the elimination of bribes, simonies, the sale of offices, and the promotion of unworthy and inept persons.

While not daring such an accusation, a friar preaching Margaret’s funeral sermon directly to Philip made bold that

a king has two wives, the queen and the community … the offspring of the first marrriage should be children. The offspring of the second marriage should be prudent laws, the appointment of good ministers, mercies to those who deserve them, the punishment of criminals, audiences to all your subjects, dedication to affairs of state, and the consolation of the afflicted. To repay God for the abundant offspring from the first marriage Your Majesty has to comply with your duties towards your second wife. (Both quotes via Kingship and Favoritism in the Spain of Philip III.)

Nothing troubled, Calderon had become a marquis by 1614.

But the rumor mill played the long game. Calderon’s patron Lerma was displaced by his son in 1618, leaving his longtime crony vulnerable to the next turn of fortune. That turn was the 1621 death of Philip III himself, leaving the kingdom to a 16-year-old son, Philip IV.

It is said that when Calderon heard the bells tolling the elder Philip’s passing he remarked, “the king is dead, and I am dead.”

Determined to rein in the perceived decadences of the last era — this period was the peak, and the very start of the decline, of Spain’s wealth and global power — Philip’s Lerma figure the Duke of Olivares had Calderon arrested. Regicide and witchcraft were right there on the charge sheet, but it was the murder of a different man in 1614 allegedly killed to keep him silent about Calderon’s misdeeds that sustained the sentence. A bit more exotic than regular beheading, Calderon had his throat slashed, then was left to bleed out on the scaffold.

As Calderon had come to personify courtly corruption, the new regime anticipated a salutary effect from making an example of him. To their surprise, the pitiless and obviously politically-motivated handling of the fellow — who bore his fate with lauded stoicism — made the late grasping aristocrat the subject of no small sympathy.

Calderon’s mummy, the executioner’s gash through its neck still gruesomely visible, is still preserved in Valladolid. (Link in Spanish, but more importantly, with pictures.)

* Calderon was himself a great collector of art.

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1660: Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtell, regicides

Add comment October 19th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1660, the English soldiers Francis Hacker and Daniel Axtel(l) were executed for their roles in keeping the captured King Charles I, and for eventually seeing that late king to his beheading.

Francis Hacker

No hapless grunt, Hacker was a committed Roundhead even though most of his family stayed loyal to the Stuarts. When captured by the royalists at Leicester, Hacker “was so much prized by the enemy as they offered him the command of a choice regiment of horse to serve the king.”

Hacker disdainfully turned it down.

And as the wheel of fortune turned, the king would become Hacker’s prize. It was Hacker who commanded the detail of 32 halberdiers who marched the deposed monarch into Westminster Hall on January 20, 1649 to begin a weeklong trial — and a whole new historical era of parliamentary ascendancy.

Ten days later, when Charles was led out for beheading outside the Banqueting House, it was Hacker who escorted him. Hacker might have escaped even this much participation with his own life after the restoration of Charles’s son and heir, but it came out that he had even written, with Cromwell, the order to the executioner.

(It was an order that one of his comrades that day had very presciently refused to set his own hand to; come 1660, Hercules Huncks would owe his life to this refusal.)


Detailed view (click for a larger image) of an illustration of the king’s beheading. On the right of the scaffold, character “D” sporting a natty scabbard is Francis Hacker.

It’s a funny little thing to lose your life over, because — narrowly considered — it was nothing but a bit of bureaucracy. Hacker et al had been given from above a commission for the king’s death. On the occasion of the execution they had to convey from their party to the executioner a secondary writ licensing the day’s beheading.

But monarchs asserting divine prerogative certainly do not take such a view of mere paperwork.

“When you come to the Person of the King, what do our Law Books say he is? they call it, Caput Reipublicae, salus Populi, the Leiutenant of God”

-The regicides’ judge, delivering sentence

Huncks refusing to set his hand to this death warrant, it was Cromwell himself who personally dashed it off, then handed it to Hacker, who fatally countersigned it, just before the execution proceeded.

Meanwhile, Hacker’s subaltern Daniel Axtell razzed Huncks for chickening out. Axtell, who seemingly would be right at home in the kit of your most hated sports club, was indicted a regicide for his gauche fan behavior during the king’s trial, several times inciting soldiers (on pain of thrashing, per testimony in 1660) to chant for the king’s condemnation, whilst bullying any onlookers who dared to shout for Charles into silence.

Hacker did not bother to mount a defense; the verdicts were foreordained by political settlement.

Axtell argued superior orders, a defense best-known to us for its unsuccessful use by Nazis at Nuremberg but one which actually boasts a long history of failing to impress:

the Parliament, thus constituted, and having made their Generals, he by their Authority did constitute and appoint me to be an Inferior Officer in the Army, serving them in the quarters of the Parliament, and under and within their power; and what I have done, my Lord, it hath been done only as a Souldier, deriving my power from the General, he had his power from the Fountain, to wit, the Lords and Commons; and, my Lord, this being done, as hath been said by several, that I was there, and had command at Westminster-hall; truly, my Lord, if the Parliament command the General, and the General the inferiour Officers, I am bound by my Commission, according to the Laws and Customs of War to be where the Regiment is; I came not thither voluntarily, but by command of the General, who had a Commission (as I said before) from the Parliament. I was no Counsellor, no Contriver, I was no Parliament-man, none of the Judges, none that Sentenced, Signed, none that had any hand in the Execution, onely that which is charged is that I was an Officer in the Army.

Sounding equally modern, the court replied:

You are to obey them in their just commands, all unjust commands are invalid. If our Superiours should command us to undue and irregular things (much more if to the committing of Treason) we are in each Case to make use of our passive not active Obedience.*

The two men were drawn from Newgate to Tyburn this date and hanged.

Axtell was quartered, the customary fate of those regicides who had been put to death all the week preceding. Hacker, however, enjoyed the favor of hanging only, and was delivered and “was, by his Majesties great favour, given entire to his Friends, and buried” — perhaps because so many of Hacker’s family had remained true to Charles.

“If I had a thousand lives, I could lay them all down for the Cause

-Axtell, at his execution

* Axtell’s trial has a good deal of detailed bickering over the superior-orders defense, but the court itself did also take pains to differentiate the things Axtell did as an officer, such as commanding troops (for which Axtell was not charged) — and his going the extra mile and surely beyond his commission to shout for the king’s death.

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1796: Thirty Jacobins for the Affaire du camp de Grenelle

Add comment October 9th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1796, 30 Jacobins were shot by a military commission in under the French Directory for attempting to subert the army.

This final, failed enterprise of Gracchus Babeuf‘s “Conspiracy of Equals” took place months after Babeuf himself had been arrested on the eve of his envisioned revolution.

“Song of the Equals”
Babouvist popular song from 1796

For too long a wretched code
Enslaved men to men:
May the reign of the brigands fall!
Let us finally know what our condition is
Awaken to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind,
People! Take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

You created us to be equal,
Nature, oh beneficent mother!
Why, in property and labors,
This murderous inequality? Awaken!

People, smash the ancient charm
Of a too lethargic slumber:
With the most terrible of awakenings
Spread alarm to grinning crime.
Lend an ear to our voice
And leave the darkest night behind.
People, take hold of your rights,
The sun shines for all.

In the uncertain aftermath of Robespierre’s fall, the interregnum of the Directory saw both royalists and republicans jockey for a restoration of their former prerogatives (and jockey against one another, of course). Babeuf’s conspiracy might have been the boldest stroke of all had it come off; instead, a projected rising for May 11, 1796 was scotched by Babeuf’s pre-emptive arrest.

But to strike the head was not to slay the movement. The economy was a mess and the political authority a rudderless, unpopular clique. The coup attempt didn’t happen but Jacobin agitation continued to mount — met in its turn by royalist agitation, the two parties dangerously hellbent for one another’s blood. The imprisoned Babeuf (he wouldn’t be guillotined until the following year) made one such focus of agitation — and eventually, of more conspiring.

Babeuf’s allies conceived a plan of swaying the regiment of dragoons then encamped on the plain of Grenelle outside of Paris. (Today, part of the 15th arrondissement.)

On the night of September 9-10, several hundred armed Jacobins assembled and descended on the camp of Grenelle — intending not to fight, but to fraternize, hoping that sympathetic soldiery could be swung to liberate Babeuf and mount a rising against the Directory. This strange and desperate episode was in the end the acme of babouvisme, and was crushed out of hand by officers of the regiment.

Most of the would-be fraternizers scattered but 132 were arrested. At snap military trials — legally questionable since most of the instigators were civilians — 33 death sentences were meted out. Three were delivered in absentia; the 30 others were all enforced by musketry on this date.

The most notable casualties among those 30 were (these are French Wikipedia links all):


More about Babeuf, “the first modern communist”, by the speaker in this lecture here.

* All three had in their day voted the death of King Louis XVI.

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1246: Mikhail of Chernigov, Miracle-Worker

Add comment September 20th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1246, the Russian prince Mikhail of Chernigov was put to death by the Mongol commander Batu Khan for refusing to make an idolatrous gesture of submission.

In its time, prosperous Chernigov (or “Chernihiv” in a more Ukrainian transliteration) vied with neighboring Kiev for the the pride of place in Rus’.

But Chernigov’s time ended with Mikhail’s time, because the Mongols came crashing through the gates. The “Tatar Yoke” descended on Chernigov, and on Rus’, in the 1230s, and would not be lifted for a quarter of a millennium.

The nomadic Mongols weren’t there to commit genocide or displace the Russian civilization; they just wanted the tribute payments, thank you very much. But the local rulers the Mongols left to collect for them were selected for compliance like any good ploughman would do — and Mikhail found the yoke too disagreeable for his shoulders.

Mikhail knew full well that the Mongols were no joke. He was present at the 1223 Battle of the Kalka River, when the Rus’ principalities had caught word of a horde from the east advancing into present-day Ukraine, rode out to repel them, and lost 10,000 dead.* One of them was the previous prince of Chernigov, which is how Mikhail got the job.

Rus’ had a reprieve because this force was merely the vanguard; the Mongols had business elsewhere. Mikhail would return to the trade negotiations and regional political jockeying that made up the workaday life of a knyaz, thinking who knows what about the mysterious barbarians.

Then the Mongols returned in force.

From December 1237, they overwhelmed and sacked city after city: Ryazan, Kolomna, Moscow, and Vladimir just by March of 1238, and then dozens of cities to follow.** Some held out fiercely; some gave way quickly — but each in its turn succumbed. The “Grand Principality of Chernigov” was no more by 1239.

As the Mongols swept onwards towards Bulgaria, Poland, and Hungary,† the Mongol ruler Batu Khan (grandson of Genghis) set up a capital where the Russian princes would be made to give their ceremonial submissions. Mikhail was one of the last to do so but in 1246 to forestall the prospect of another Mongol attack, he too made the trip.

Although Mikhail consented to kowtow to the Mongol prince, he incensed his host by refusing to prostrate himself before heathen idols. For this he was slaughtered along with an equally faithful boyar named Fedor, their bodies cast into the wilds for animals and elements to devour.


Michael of Chernigov at the camp of Batu Khan, by Vasiliy Smirnov (1883)

For this sacrifice, they became honored as Christian saints and martyrs, with September 20 fixed as the “Feast of the Miracle-Workers of Chernigov” — a liturgical expression of Russian resistance to that Tatar Yoke. When Ivan the Terrible put the Tatars of Kazan and Astrakhan to rout in the 16th century, he also translated the Miracle-Workers’ relics from Chernigov to Moscow — a political expression of their national import.

* Or possibly several times that. Body counts from chroniclers are notoriously unreliable.

** It was to save itself from the Mongols that the mythical city of Kitezh is supposed to have sunk itself like Atlantis into Lake Svetloyar near Nizhny Novgorod.

† As well as points south.

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1865: Gerardo Barrios, Salvadoran statesman

Add comment August 29th, 2014 Headsman

August 29 is a National Day of Commemoration in El Salvador, honoring the execution on this date in 1865 of the country’s beloved ex-president Gerardo Barrios.

Today, you’ll find Barrios (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) entombed adjacent Francisco Morazan, an apt deposition for both those great statesmen of Central American union. Barrios was just old enough — he enlisted at age 14 — to have served in Morazan’s army of the United Provinces of Central America, the abbreviated political expression of a wonderful vision for Spain’s former possessions. “This magnificent location between the two great oceans,” Bolivar once enthused of Central America,

could in time become the emporium of the world. Its canals will shorten the distances throughout the world, strengthen commercial ties with Europe, America, and Asia, and bring that happy region tribute from the four quarters of the globe. Perhaps some day the capital of the world may be located there, just as Constantine claimed Byzantium was the capital of the ancient world.

El Salvador was the capital of this prospective emporium, and not only in the sense that its government met at San Salvador.* As the “provinces” of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica pursued more autonomy and, eventually, outright independence, El Salvador was also the bastion of support for the failing union. It’s where Morazan fell back to as the United Provinces fractured, and it’s where he landed to mount a doomed reunification campaign.

Gerardo Barrios, come to political maturity as well as to manhood in Morazan’s service, was a Senator by the time the union ended. He followed Morazan into exile, and he raised a battalion for the abortive restoration attempt that cost Morazan his life.

After Morazan’s execution, Barrios increasingly became the key leader of remaining unionist aspirations, which also meant leadership of El Salvador’s liberal faction. This was the country — independent at last because all her sister provinces had declared independence from her — that Gerardo Barrios assumed leadership of in 1859,** a generation on from Morazan’s execution. Actual political reunification of the former provinces was by then as distant and gauzy a dream as Bolivar’s Byzantium; perhaps their most noteworthy common-purpose act in the meantime had been the coordinated defeat of American filibuster William Walker, an operation for which Barrios provided essential behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

So Barrios’s executive tenure would be a crucial period of state-building for Nicaragua: building up roads, schools, and other pillars of civil infrastructure; professionalizing the army; promulgating a comprehensive legal code; and economic development.†

It is from this farsighted era that Barrios won lasting fame as his country’s great statesman. And crowning the period with martyrs’ laurels has surely not done his reputation a bit of harm. His regional rivalry with the Guatemalan caudillo Rafael Carrera broke out into war in 1863, which quickly pulled in Honduras (on the side of El Salvador) and Nicaragua and Costa Rica (on the side of Guatemala). The populist Carrera, Guatemala’s “supreme and perpetual leader for life,” had been the central anti-unionist and anti-liberal figure dating back to the Morazan era, and besides his international alliances he gained the support in 1863 of Salvadoran Catholic clergy opposed to the secularization part of Barrios’s modernizing project. Finally encircled by his enemies in a besieged San Salvador in October of that year, Barrios was once again forced into exile.

Carrera died on April 14, 1865‡ and with the passing of the local hegemon Barrios — by now cooling his heels in Panama — saw an opportunity to regain leadership of his country. But the attempted rising that was to augur his re-entry into El Salvador came to nothing, and Barrios realizing the failure turned around to return to Panama almost as soon as he had arrived. Alas for him, a storm grounded his schooner in Nicaraguan waters.

Nicaragua extradited Carrera back to his native soil, albeit with an arrangement that the prisoner — who had been declared a traitor in absentia during his exile — would not face the death penalty. Once the man was in hand, El Salvador reneged on that part of the agreement and subjected Barrios to a military trial. “Today Duenas pronounces my sentence,” Barrios observed of his successor and enemy late the night of August 28, when the tribunal condemned him to be shot just hours thereafter. “But tomorrow I receive the verdict of history.”

The latter judgment has been an unmitigated victory for our man. His life is taught to schoolchildren and his image has graced the Salvadoran currency repeatedly. Two Salvadoran towns (Gerardo, and Barrios) are named in his honor, and many others have streets or plazas that bear his name, including a huge one in the center of San Salvador, ornamented with a monumental equestrian statue of its namesake.


(cc) image from Bradier044 of the Barrios statue in San Salvador’s Plaza Gerardo Barrios, also known as Plaza Civica.

* San Salvador, which is the present-day capital of El Salvador, was the capital of the United Provinces from 1834. Prior to that time, the capital was Guatemala City.

** Barrios had also been president on a brief interim basis for a few months in 1858.

† If you enjoy brewing a morning pot of El Salvador’s top agricultural export, coffee beans, tip your mug to Barrios: he’s credited with introducing coffee cultivation in the country.

‡ The same date John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln.

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1948: Ragnar Skancke, the last executed in Norway

Add comment August 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1948 at stately Akershus Fortress, a firing squad carried out the last execution in Norwegian history — that of Ragnar Skancke.

Skancke (English Wikipedia entry | Norwegian) was an electrical engineer in academia, and the very first posts he held in his political life were the ministries that Vidkun Quisling named him to in the wartime Third Reich client government. That doesn’t exactly mean the man was apolitical; he had joined Quisling’s Nasjonal Samling fascist movement in 1933.

As Minister for Church and Educational Affairs for most of the war years, Skancke got to do things like purge books in service of a fascist-friendly curriculum, and maneuver Norway’s reluctant Lutheran clergy into better compliance with the new order.

Since he was just an academic, and in matters of state an administrator outside the security apparatus — not a guy ordering executions or deploying the paramilitaries — Skancke wasn’t really expected to draw the severest punishment at the postwar trials of collaborators. Skancke himself shared this view, and mounted a slight and indifferent defense that he would come to regret when he heard the shock sentence.

A two-year appeals process would explore in numbing (literally so, for Skancke) detail the precise legal stature of Norway’s 1940 capitulation to the invading Germans, and whether or not that document cast the pall of treason over further collaboration with the Nazis. In fine, the government and the king fled the country and delegated a general to make the knuckling-under arrangements recognizing German victory, but simultaneously averred that Norway as a state — meaning its exiled remnants — remained at war with Germany. All well and good for the so-called “London Cabinet” strolling gardens in Buckingham Palace, but what’s that supposed to mean for the Norwegians still in Norway? As a minister, Skancke’s collaboration was considerable in degree; the question remained, was it treasonable in kind? The reader may discern the answer given by courts, but the conduct of the purge trials as a whole has remained a going controversy long after the last gavel fell.

As public distaste for the death penalty in general was also mounting, and the entire legal apparatus by which Norway conducted its postwar purges came under some scrutiny — among other things, Norway’s “capitulated” government had specifically reintroduced the already-abolished death penalty from exile with a view to these proceedings — Skancke’s increasingly frantic appeals were mirrored by a public campaign for clemency among the clergy that he had so recently pushed around.

Norway fully abolished the death penalty in 1979 and today registers consistently overwhelming public opposition to its reintroduction.

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476: Basiliscus, victim of the fine print

Add comment August 18th, 2014 Headsman

At some point around August 476 — the exact date(s) lost to history — the deposed Eastern Roman Emperor Basiliscus was executed most cruelly with his family.

But having himself played for power with ruthlessness to equal his rivals, Basiliscus was hardly in a position to complain about the treatment. Besides, his killers were just playing by the rules.

The mid-470s saw a confused succession of countercoups toppling short-lived successors to the able Leo I.

The succession went initially to a a 7-year-old grandson whose father, an Isaurian warrior, was proclaimed co-emperor to give the state adult supervision. When the kid died mysteriously (or “mysteriously”) months into his reign, the dad became Emperor Zeno.

As a “barbarian” who had married into the imperial family, Zeno couldn’t catch a break from the capital. He was run out of town in January 475 by a conspiracy of grandees, who elevated our man Basiliscus to power. (Basilicus nailed down the throne by executing his chief rival among the plotters for Big Man in Constantinople.) Basiliscus had been a general in his own right with a somewhat mixed track record; the highlight entry on his c.v. was a gigantic 468 invasion of Carthage that came to such catastrophic grief tht Basiliscus upon his return had to hide out in the basilica of Hagia Sophia claiming sanctuary to protect himself from popular fury.* Eventually the lynch mob died down and Basiliscus copped a pardon from Emperor Leo and returned to prominence in time to be a leading player in the putsch.

Demonstrating his customary aptitude for great undertakings, Basiliscus immediately busted as emperor. A huge fire ravaged Constantinople under his watch. He recalled exiled Monophysite clergy, leading the patriarch of Constantinople to drape icons in the Hagia Sophia in black.

It wasn’t long before daggers were drawn for Basiliscus in his scheming court, just as they had been for Zeno.

In fact, it was Zeno himself who would be the instrument of his successor’s destruction.

A general dispatched to Isauria to take care of the absconded Zeno got word of the gathering discontent and switched to backing the former and now future emperor. As they marched together on Constantinople, a second general sent to stop them also backstabbed Basiliscus by making an arrangement with Zeno to march his defending army down the wrong road. The barbarian warlord looked pretty good to the Senate by now, and it threw open the gates of Constantinople to welcome back its former master in August of 476. Basiliscus for the second time in his life made tracks for the sanctuary of Hagia Sophia.

It’s said that the restored Zeno got rid of Basiliscus without violating the church via a nasty little ruse: he got the former emperor to abandon sanctuary with a promise never to spill his blood, then promptly had Basiliscus together with his wife and his son thrown into a dry cistern at some Cappadocian fortress to desiccate from exposure. Zeno would have made a great lawyer.


Basiliscus forced into the cistern.

The restored Emperor Zeno reigned for 15 more years, during which he caused a schism in the church and played a lot of backgammon. Legend has it that he too met a horrific end by deprivation when he drank himself into such a stupor** that he was buried as dead, and finally awoke to find himself entombed. By now quite unpopular himself, he was roundly ignored as he pounded on the inside of his sarcophagus shouting for aid.

Robin Pierson’s History of Byzantium podcast handles this period in episodes 2 and 3.

* Procopius accuses Basiliscus of negligence verging on treason in this operation by accepting a plea (and a bribe) by the defending Vandals to defer the attack for a few days on some pretext. “If he had not purposely played the coward and hesitated, but had undertaken to go straight for Carthage, he would have captured it at the first onset.”

** Or alternatively (but less expressively, in moral terms), fell very ill — an epileptic coma, perhaps.

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Borderline "Executions",Byzantine Empire,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Heads of State,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Roman Empire,Soldiers,Starved,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Turkey,Uncertain Dates

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1714: Constantine Brancoveanu and his sons

Add comment August 15th, 2014 Headsman

Three centuries ago today, Wallachian prince Constantine Brancoveanu was beheaded in Istanbul with his four sons.

Brancoveanu (English Wikipedia entry | Romanian) had fallen foul of the Sublime Porte, which dominated Wallachia, by dallying with the Ottomans’ European rivals, the Habsburgs and the Russians.

During the then-current installment the oft-renewed Russo-Turkish War derby, he actually massed armies for a potential swing all the way to the anti-Ottoman team. Breaking those up and returning Peter the Great’s gifts after the Russian clock got cleaned did not a tribute of loyalty make in the eyes of Turkey.

Not only Contantine but his entirely family — wife, four sons, and six daughters — were carried thereafter to Istanbul prisons. On the Feast Day of the Blessed Virgin, in the presence of the Sultan himself and of Christian diplomats who would be sure to put the word out, his four sons Constantine, Stefan, Radu and Matei were beheaded in his presence, as was the Wallachian treasurer Enache Vacarescu. The 60-year-old prince exhorted them as they endured their martyrdoms to remain steadfast, until at last he too lost his head. (Istanbul Christians managed to give the bodies honorable burials after fishing them out of the Bosphorus. The remains were later translated to Bucharest.*)

Most of the web sites about Branacoveanu and family are in Romanian; he was in his quarter-century reign a great cultural patron. The first Romanian Bible was completed in his time, and he undertook a great building program whose distinctive architectural stile still bears his name — Brancovenesc.

The Romanian Orthodox church conferred upon the martyred family the laurels of sainthood in 1992, a fine time to honor Romanian independence from foreign domination although of course by that time the Ottomans were yesteryear’s news and the outside heavy in question was the Russians.


Brancoveanu and his sons, from a mural at a monastery Brancoveanu founded.

Constantine also has a full panoply of secular miscellany in his honor: roads, statues, ballads, a metro station named after him, and so forth.

* At least, the alleged remains; it is well not to turn a forensic lens on saintly relics, and when Brancoveanu’s tomb was opened at the bicentennial of his death the skeleton therein appeared by the state of its teeth to be that of a man half Brancoveanu’s age. (Source)

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