Posts filed under 'Politicians'

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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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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1938: Janis Berzins, Soviet military intelligence chief

Add comment July 29th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, the Soviet intelligence agent Janis Berzin(s) was shot in the basement of Moscow’s Lubyanka Prison.

A Latvian radical back to Riga’s chapter of the 1905 revolution,* Berzins became a trusted associate of Lenin in exile, and transitioned with the 1917 Revolution into a variety of political-security-military leadership positions in the new Soviet state.

For most of the 1924-1937 period, Berzins directed — indeed, practically createdSoviet military intelligence. He’s credited with personally recruiting the legendary World War II spy Richard Sorge; in 1936-1937 he was the chief Soviet military advisor in the Spanish Civil War under the nom de guerre “Grishin”. Russians fighting in Spain just referred to him as “the old man.” (Source)

Of course, no degree of seniority was sufficient safety during the frightful purging years of the Yezhovshchina. Once back in Moscow, Berzins fell instantly, almost randomly, over a spurious accusation of internal espionage.

His conviction was reversed after Stalin died.

* But not one of the Latvian revolutionaries who ended up in a shootout with London police.

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1938: Vladimir Kirshon, Bulgakov antagonist

Add comment July 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1938, Soviet playwright Vladimir Kirshon was shot at the Kommunarka “special object” shooting range outside Moscow.

Kirshon (English Wikipedia entry | Russian), purged as a “Trotskyist counter-revolutionary” as one might assume from the date and place. And like many peers in those terrible years, it was Kirshon’s to suffer the martyr’s fate without the merit of the martyr’s service.

In his day — which ran up to the spring 1937 fall of his patron, NKVD chief Genrikh Yagoda — Kirshon had distinguished himself with servility.

In his capacity as a Soviet writer’s guild bigwig, the ideologically rigorous Kirshon had been a point man in the depressing 1929-1932 campaign against the early Soviet Union’s rich literary heterodoxy. (Sample slogan: “For the hegemony of Proletarian literature! Liquidate backwardness!”)

This chilly period drove dystopian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin to exile, and futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to suicide.* The novelist and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, a writer whose manuscripts from the furnace of Stalinism were forged for immortality, was also long harried by Kirshon. Kirshon’s pull nearly ruined Bulgakov’s career at what should have been its peak.

Bulgakov returned the contempt of his persecutor from a position of considerable literary superiority. Kirshon’s own work tended to the glorification of doctrinaire communism — he produced a verse celebrating the Civil War’s martyred 26 Baku commissars; Bulgakov has on his c.v. perhaps the signal achievement of 20th century Russian letters, The Master and Margarita. Little wonder to find Bulgakov complaining in private correspondence of the waste Kirshon has made of a trip to Europe, churning out the sort of tendentious and formulaic Soviet-man-abroad literature that any loyal commissar could have written without setting foot from Moscow. But despite the very real injuries Kirshon had done to him, Bulgakov found the baying denunciation theater so distasteful that he declined to say a public word against Kirshon when the latter fell.

The diary of Bulgakov’s wife Elena is not quite so diplomatic.

21 April 1937

A rumour that Kirshon and [Alexander] Afinogenov are in trouble. They say that [Leopold] Averbakh has been arrested. Is it possible that Nemesis has been visited upon Kirshon?

23 April 1937

Yes, Nemesis has come. There are very bad stories in the press about Kirshon and Afinogenov.

(These entries, quoted via J.A.E. Curtis’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn: Michael Bulgakov: a Life in Letters and Diaries, refer only to Kirshon’s professional fall. He was not arrested until that August.)

Kirshon was posthumously rehabilitated in the Khrushchev era and some of his work has even been performed in post-Communist Russia. But according to this Russian-language Bulgakov trove, that old foe made perhaps Kirshon’s lasting literary monument by using him as the model for the character Polievkt Eduardovich in Bulgakov’s short story “It Was May” (Russian link): it’s a story about a foppish critic who returns from abroad with specious critiques that force the narrator to ruin his own play by diverting the story to the arrest and purging of its principal character.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for translation and background.

* Mayakovsky shot himself at age 37; there’s also a popular hypothesis that he did this to check out at the same age as Pushkin.

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1847: Manuel Antonio Ay, Caste War harbinger

Add comment July 26th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1847, the execution of Maya leader Manuel Antonio Ay in Valladolid kicked off the Yucatan’s decades-long Caste War.

Under Spanish administration, Mexico had a dizzying 16-tiered racial caste hierarchy.

The casta system was officially abolished when Mexico attained independence in 1821, but for Amerindians the newfound equality was more aspirational than real. It’s just that now they were looking up at Mexican-born criollo elites instead of Iberia-born peninsulares.

Either caste’s powers that be had long found found the Maya especially contumacious subjects; a Yucatan Mayan stronghold had, indeed, been the very last unconquered indigenous realm of the Americas to fall to Europeans — as late as 1697.

In 1846, a heavily Maya Yucatecan peasantry, strained by the economic extractions the Mexican state was imposing for its disastrous war with the United States, began rising against the overweening local gentry.

The progress and organization of these disturbances varied, but it’s the execution of our man, the 27-year-old chief of the village Chichimila, that traditionally marks turning-point galvanizing a full-scale rebellion. On July 18, as armed Maya regiments gathered in nearby Tihosuco, Valladolid’s authorities seized Miguel Antonio Ay for planning a rebellion. He had in his possession a letter from Bonifacio Novelo, a major Maya chief who would become one of the Caste War’s leading figures in the years to come — indeed, Terry Rugeley says in Yucatan’s Maya Peasantry and the Origins of the Caste War that Ay served for his persecutors as “a temporary substitute for Novelo, whom officials feared and hated more than any Maya.”

They’d never lay hands on Novelo, but his substitute was executed in the town square of Valladolid, and the body returned to exhibit in Chichimila in a futile attempt to cow resistance: Ay had, instead, become the first martyr of the coming war. Three days later, the gathering Maya army sacked the village of Tepich, beheading the colonel who commanded its defenses — the onset of generations of general war that persisted into the 20th century.

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1683: Lord Russell, Whig martyr

Add comment July 21st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1683 at Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London the great Whig parliamentarian William, Lord Russell was beheaded with a legendary want of dexterity by Jack Ketch.

The third son of the Earl (later Duke) of Bedford, Lord Russell emerged from a decade of comfortable obscurity in the Parliament’s back benches to become a leading exponent of the nascent Whigs* opposed to royal absolutism and to Catholicism — two heads of the same coin, for the Whigs, given that the heir presumptive James had controversially converted to Catholicism.

The national freakout from 1678 over an alleged “Popish Plot” to undo Old Blighty gave Russell his cause; his leadership of the resulting parliamentary bid to exclude James from royal succession made the gregarious Russell “the governing man in the House of Commons”.

Lord Russell was a man of great candour, and of general reputation; universally beloved and trusted; of a generous and obliging temper,” his friend Gilbert Burnet recorded of our man. “He had given such proofs of an undaunted courage and of an unshaken firmness, that I never knew any man have so entire a credit in the nation as he had.”

Russell was, Burnet allowed, “a slow man, and of little discourse, but he had a true judgment, when he considered things at his own leisure: his understanding was not defective; but his virtues were so eminent, that they would have more than balanced real defects, if any had been found in the other.”

Chief among those virtues was his wholehearted sincerity for his cause — a passion the source of both his renown, and his destruction. Russell was heard to espouse the view that James ought not merely be excluded from succession, but executed like his father.

Matters never quite approached that point, but the crisis provoked by the Exclusion Bill firebrands led King Charles II to dissolve parliament in 1681, depriving the Whigs of their legal perch. In the ensuing years politics played out not as legislation but conspiracy, and the crown’s rather more successful harassment of same: many of the chief Whig actors were driven offstage to scaffolds, dungeons, or continental exile.

The half-dozen most eminent Whigs remaining — to whom, besides Lord Russell, we number the king’s illegitimate son Monmouth, the Earl of Essex, Baron Howard of Escrick,** Algernon Sidney, and John Hampden† — formed a sort of informal Council of Six who met secretly to consider the bad options available to the fractured Whig movement. Some section of the wider Whig network in which this Council operated turned eventually to considering the most desperate of measures.

Their Rye House Plot schemed to waylay and assassinate the royal person near a fortified manor handily on the king’s route back to London from the Newmarket races. It was owned then by a radical former soldier of Cromwell‘s New Model Army.

It has been long debated to what extent any of the top Whigs knew of or actively participated in this Guy Fawkesian plot, or its complement, a projected armed rising of the sort that Monmouth would indeed mount in 1685. One school of thought is that the Tories seized it as an expedient to eviscerate the remaining Whig leadership by conflating the entire movement with a regicidal scheme; another is that the Whig insistence upon its martyrs’ innocence — and Lord Russell is the chief man in this pantheon — has amounted to a fantastic propaganda coup.‡

In June 1683, a salter who was in on the Rye House planning got a cold sweat and informed on the Whigs. This backstab earned a royal pardon for himself, and started a familiar policing sequence of incriminated conspirators turning crown’s evidence and informing in their turn on the next part of the network.

Many of the Whigs fled to the Netherlands, received there by the House of Orange which would seat itself on the English throne inside of six years.

Lord Russell, however, refused to fly. He landed in the Tower of London by the end of the month, to face trial as a traitor on the evidence of his association with other Whigs and his entertaining the plan of raising an armed revolt. The judge’s summation to the jury even underscored that “You have not Evidence in the Case as there was [in other Rye House cases] against the Conspirators to kill the King at the Rye. There was a direct Evidence of a Consult to kill the King, that is not given you in this Case: This is an Act of contriving Rebellion, and an Insurrection within the Kingdom, and to seize his Guards, which is urged an Evidence, and surely is in itself an Evidence, to seize and destroy the King.”

Lord Russell’s case shifted around the fringes of actual innocence — those plans for Insurrection within the Kingdom, he said, occurred sometimes at meetings he happened to attend but only off on the side, or without Lord Russell’s own involvement or support. (Speaking from the scaffold, he would several times insist that his acts were at worst misprision of treason, which was no longer a capital crime at this point.)

Against this the crown produced Lord Howard, a cravenly interested party to be sure, who saved his own skin by testifying that the six-headed cabal was down to planning the specifics of the places where a rebellion might best be stirred up, the procurements of arms and bankroll that would be necessary to same, and how to draw Scotland into the fray as an ally. “Every one knows my Lord Russell is a Person of great Judgment, and not very lavish in Discourse,” Howard allowed on the point of Russell’s active assent to the plans. “We did not put it to the Vote, but it went without Contradiction, and I took it that all there gave their Consent.”

David Hume would observe in his History of Great Britain that Russell’s “present but not part of it” parsing didn’t make for a very compelling story. “Russell’s crime fell plainly under the statute … his defence was very feeble.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of an 1825 painting of Lord Russell’s trial, commissioned of George Hayter by Lord Russell’s admiring kinsman John Russell, Duke of Bedford. John Russell also wrote a biography of his famous ancestor. The unbroken succession of Dukes of Bedford from William Russell’s father continues to the present day; the current Duke of Bedford, 15th of that line, is one of Britain’s richest men.

Conscious of the great pulpit his scaffold would offer, Lord Russell drafted with the aid of his wife a last statement vindicating his own person and the Whig cause that flew into print before the onlookers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields were dipping their handkerchiefs into his martyrs’ blood.

Nor did I ever pretend to a great readiness in speaking: I wish those gentlemen of the law who have it, would make more conscience int he use of it, and not run men down by strains and fetches, impose on easy and willing juries, to the ruin of innocent men: For to kill by forms and subtilties of law, is the worst sort of murder …

I never had any design against the king’s life, or the life of any man whatsoever; so I never was in any contrivance of altering the government. What the heats, wickedness, passions, and vanities of other men have occasioned, I ought not to be answerable for; nor could I repress them, though I now suffer for them.

These notices drew furious confutations from Tory pamphleteers aghast at the face these traitors had to forswear their malice against King Charles; a battle of broadsides to control the historical narrative ensued, and was resolved in the Whigs’ favor by the imminent conquest of power by the aforementioned House of Orange. The Whig-aligned William and Mary reversed Lord Russell’s attainder in 1689 — but that’s never stood in the way of historians’ debates.

In a much lower historical register, Lord Russell’s execution was egregiously bumbled by the London headsman Jack Ketch, who had to bash repeatedly at the man’s neck before he could remove it from the shoulders. It is largely from this event that Ketch derives his lasting reputation as an incompetent and/or sadistic butcher, mutually reinforcing with Russell’s martyr status.

Ketch would later claim in a published “Apologie” issued against “those grievous Obloquies and Invectives that have been thrown upon me for not Severing my Lords Head from his Body at one blow” that his prey

died with more Galantry than Discresion, and did not dispose him for receiving of the fatal Stroke in such a posture as was most suitable, for whereas he should have put his hands before his Breast, or else behind him, he spread them out before him, nor would he be persuaded to give any Signal or pull his Cap over his eyes, which might possibly be the Occasion that discovering the Blow, he somewhat heav’d his Body

and besides that Ketch “receav’d some Interruption just as I was taking Aim, and going to give the Blow.” How would you like it if someone came to your workplace and did that?

The damage to Ketch’s reputation was already done. Two years later, en route to the block for a subsequent failed bid to topple the Stuarts, the Duke of Monmouth tipped Ketch with the scornful charge not to “hack me as you did my Lord Russell.” When Ketch botched that execution too, he was nearly lynched — but escaped the scaffold to live on in Punch and Judy and in the English tongue as the definitive lowlife executioner.

* Short for “Whiggamores”, who were Covenanter rebels in the 1640s. “Tories”, by contrast, took their name from Irish Catholic outlaws: each party became known by the slur its foes attached to it.

** Yes, another one of those Howards: this Howard’s great-grandfather lost his head for the Ridolfi intrigue.

† Hampden survived the suppression of Whig intrigues long enough to coin the term “Glorious Revolution” when the Stuarts were finally overthrown

‡ See for instance Lois Schwoerer, "William, Lord Russell: The Making of a Martyr, 1683-1983" in Journal of British Studies, January 1985 for a skeptical-of-Russell reading of the evidence. “The government did not concoct the plot; it was frightened by the revelations, whatever use it made of them. There is no doubt that proposals for an insurrection of some kind were discussed; Russell’s impetuosity and extremism make it more likely than not that he was an active party to these discussions. What is in doubt, since nothing came of the discussions, is how far the parties had gone in developing a concrete plan for a rising.”

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1651: Wilhelm Biener, faithful counsellor

Add comment July 17th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1651, Wilhelm Biener, late the chancellor of Tyrol, lost his head to the rancor of Tyrol’s landed aristocracy.

A barrister by training and eventually a judge, Biener or Bienner (English Wikipedia entry | German) transitioned into a court position under Leopold V, Archduke of Austria. Leopold’s death in 1632 left a four-year-old heir, Ferdinand Charles; the boy’s mother, Claudia de’ Medici, leaned increasingly on Biener’s counsel as she ably kept Tyrol in order (and out of the devastating Thirty Years’ War) while little Ferdinand aged towards his majority.

As a commoner, no dynastic entanglements of his own divided his attentions from the state’s own interest, a fact that Claudia de’ Medici recognized by elevating Biener to the chancellorship in 1638, and that the land’s magnates recognized in the strictly levied taxes Biener extracted from their resentful purses.


Detail view (click for full image) of Karl Anrather’s 1891 painting of Wilhelm Biener holding forth against the Tiroler Landtag, from the Ferdinandeum at Innsbruck.

We’ve seen quite often enough in these pages that the danger undertaken by such figures should their enemies ever find power over them mitigates the honors and emoluments they are like to enjoy while in office. One gets a sense of the undercurrent of biding violence from the remark of the Bishop of Brixen, directed to forward the required revenues in a letter less deferential than a senior cleric thought he was due: “The man deserves to lose the fingers that could write such an intemperate effusion!”

For Biener, the volcano opened under him with the death of his patron Claudia de’ Medici on Christmas Day 1648. Her boy Ferdinand Charles was all of 20 years old now, wet behind the ears and enamored of courtly profligacy. Despite his affection for Biener and his long service to his mother, the young prince would vacillate on sparing the consigliere until it was too late.

Biener’s enemies struck with a secret trial accusing him of wetting his own beak on the imposts he had imposed on Tirol; the account below of what followed from a travelogue probably reflects the posthumous myth of Biener more faithfully than it does the real man.

[Biener] was ultimately condemned, in 1651, to lose his head. Biener sent a statement of his case to the Archduke Ferdinand Karl; and the young prince, believing the honesty of his mother’s faithful adviser, immediately ordered a reprieve. The worst enemy and prime accuser of the fallen favourite was Schmaus, President of the Council … and he contrived by detaining the messenger to make him arrive just too late in Rattenberg, then still a strong fortress, where he lay confined, and where the sentence was to be carried out.

Biener had all along steadfastly maintained his innocence; and stepping on to the scaffold, he had again repeated the assertion, adding, “So truly as I am innocent, I summon my accuser before the Judgment-seat above before another year is out.” When the executioner stooped to lift up the head before the people, he found lying by its side three fingers of his right hand, without having had any knowledge that he had struck them off, though he might have done so by the unhappy man having raised his hand in the way of the sword in the last struggle. [more likely they were folded in prayer. -ed.] The people, however, saw in it the fulfilment of the words of the bishop, as well as a ghastly challenge accompanying his dying message to President Schmaus. Nor did they forget to note that the latter died of a terrible malady some months before the close of the year.

Biener’s wife lost her senses when she knew the terrible circumstances of his death; the consolations of her director and of her son, who lived to his ninetieth year in the Franciscan convent at Innsbruck, were alike powerless to calm her. She escaped in the night, and wandered out into the mountains no one knows whither. But the people say she lives on to be a witness of her husband’s innocence, and may be met on lonely ways proclaiming it, but never harming any. Only, when anyone is to die in Büchsenhausen, where her married life passed so pleasantly, the ‘Bienerweible’ will appear and warn them.

Living on in Tyrol folk tradition, Biener took a leap into the Romantic-era national consciousness thanks to writer Hermann Schmid, who popularized Biener’s legend with a 19th century historical novel, The Chancellor of Tyrol; public domain versions can be read online in two volumes (1, 2); a theatrical adaptation by Josef Wenter is still staged to this day.


Marker honoring Wilhelm Biener in the Austrian Tyrol town of Rattenberg, where Biener was executed on July 17, 1651.

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1517: Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci, plotter

Add comment July 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1517, the Italian cardinal Alfonso Petrucci was put to death for a conspiracy to murder Pope Leo X.

Leo had been acclaimed pope in 1513 at a conclave noted for nearly electing the worst possible pontiff when cardinals hedging their first-ballot votes while they took the temperature of the room all happened to vote alike for the feeblest candidate on the expectation that nobody else was voting for that guy.

Chastened by the near-miss, the leading candidate Giovanni de’ Medici promptly cut a deal with his chief legitimate rival for St. Peter’s seat, Raffaele Riario.*

This arrangement boosted to St. Peter’s throne the first of four popes from the Medici, intriguingly done with the acquiescence of Riario, who was kin to one of the prime movers of the anti-Medici Pazzi Conspiracy from many years before. Both Giovanni de’ Medici and Raffaele Riario were too young to have played a part in those events, but the lingering familial animosity might well bear on what transpired in the papacy of Giovanni de’ Medici — or rather, as we shall know him henceforth, Pope Leo X.

Leo was an entirely worldly character, whose enthusiasm for the peninsular politics that shaped his native habitat would help lead a German cleric to nail 95 theses to the door of a church in Wittenberg later this same year of 1517. “Why does the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of Saint Peter with the money of poor believers rather than with his own money?” Martin Luther demanded (thesis 86) of Leo’s increasingly shameless indulgences racket.

Acting more the Medici than the Vicar of Christ, Leo in 1516 deposed the tyrant of Florence’s neighbor and rival, Siena. The declining Sienese Republic was a prime target of Florence’s expansionist ambitions, and indeed it would be gobbled up in the mid-16th century by the Florence-based and Medici-led Grand Duchy of Tuscany.

In Leo’s time, his coup shattered Siena’s ruling Petrucci family** to the injury of one of Leo’s fellow churchmen, Cardinal Alfonso Petrucci English Wikipedia entry | the much more detailed Italian). Alfonso now had cause to use his office for the agenda of his family and his city, and sought a countervailing anti-Medici arrangement with the condottiero Francesco Maria I della Rovere, whom Leo was even then fighting a war against.

The arrangement came to nothing and Leo assured Alfonso of safe conduct for his return to Rome. It was just a lot of scheming Italian oligarchs doing what they always did, some of them while wearing cassocks.

Except upon Alfonso’s return, Leo had the Petrucci cardinal and another cardinal friendly to him clapped in prison for an alleged plot to poison the pontiff.

Cossetted court cardinals suddenly found themselves accused papicides under the threat (and, for some, the reality) of torture. Hard-to-credit “confessions” duly ensued with Leo enlivening the spring and summer of 1517 with preposterous security theatrics.

On June 8 they assembled in Consistory, when the Pope burst out into complaints. He had evidence, he said, that two other Cardinals whom he had trusted had joined in the conspiracy against him; if they would but come forward and confess he would pardon them freely; if they refused to confess he would have them carried to prison and would treat them like the other [accused]. The Cardinals gazed on one another in alarm, and no one moved. The Pope asked them to speak, and each in turn denied … Leo X’s dramatic stroke was a failure; he could not succeed in his unworthy attempt to induce some unsuspected person to criminate himself. (Source)

It’s hardly past thinking that rival factions would poison off a pope, and there’s been some latter-day research suggesting that something really was afoot. For that matter, Leo’s actual death in 1521 has often been suspected of being aided by an apothecary’s philter.

But outside the dramatics, Leo scarcely handled his prisoners in 1517 as if he were much in genuine fear for his life.

Instead, the practical pontifex maximus used it as a shakedown opportunity against anyone who could be denounced a confederate of the hotheaded young Petrucci. The Genoese Cardinal Sauli, arrested together with his friend Petrucci, was forced to buy his liberty for 50,000 ducats; Cardinal Riario, Leo’s old opposite number from the 1513 conclave, was implicated by Petrucci and Sauli as knowing himself the prospective beneficiary of the plot, and Riario was forced to retire to Naples upon payment of an exit tariff of 150,000 ducats plus his Roman palace. (It remains papal property to this day as the Palazzo della Cancelleria.) Further downmarket, Cardinals Soderini and Adrian fled Rome in despair of discharging the 25,000-ducat fines affixed upon each of them.

Money, however, would not suffice for Cardinal Petrucci, the active center of whatever conspiracy existed. Petrucci probably did murmur something one could construct as treason against his Holy Father, if one regarded them in their ecclesiastical rather than their dynastic positions, and he evidently engaged the Pope’s surgeon Giovanni Battista da Vercelli as an instrument of the proposed assassination or at least made loose talk to that effect.

While the doctor, along with Petrucci’s private secretary, were hauled through the streets to a demonstrative gibbeting, Petrucci was strangled privately in his cell on July 16, 1517. It was done by a Moor out of consideration for the impropriety of a Christian slaying a father of the Holy Church.

Beyond the rent-seeking and the rival-eradicating, Leo leveraged the purported plot to appoint 31 new cardinals in July 1517, basically doubling the College of Cardinals at one stroke while stocking the ranks with men who could offer him political support or timely bribes.

* Riario’s legacy can still be seen around the Vatican to this day: he’s the guy who brought Michelangelo to Rome.

** Leo’s coup deposed one Petrucci and raised up a different, more compliant Petrucci.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Florence,History,Italy,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Papal States,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Scandal,Strangled,Torture,Treason

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