Posts filed under 'Politicians'

1931: Xiang Zhongfa, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party

Add comment June 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Chiang Kai-shek had the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party executed.

Xiang Zhongfa was a dock worker unionist from Hanchuan who came to the fore of the workers’ movement within the CCP during the 1920s.

The Party at that time was united in a common front with the nationalist Kuomintang — an alliance that was destroyed suddenly in April 1927 when the KMT leader Chiang suddenly purged the Communists. This split precipitated the generation-long Chinese Civil War through which the Communists would eventually come to master China.

Soviet sponsorship had been essential to the CCP’s early growth. In the months after the KMT arrangement went by the boards, Chinese Communist leaders were summoned by the Comintern to Moscow where Xiang made a good impression on a hodgepodge Sixth Congress held “in the absence of key Party figures, such as Mao, Peng Pai and Li Weihan; and packed with Chinese students from Soviet universities to make up the delegate count.” (Phillip Short) Though he wound up the titular General Secretary, party leadership at the top level remained in the hands of other men, like Zhou Enlai and Qu Qiubai … while effective leadership in the field was largely in the hands of unit commanders themselves, like Mao.

A rocky early trail along the party’s long march to leadership of China and beyond … but Xiang was not made to enjoy it. During the war, he was arrested in Shanghai by the nationalists, interrogated, and delivered to the KMT’s executioners in the early hours of June 24. Orthodox party historiography holds him in disgrace for allegedly betraying the cause to his captors, speedily and cravenly (his Wikipedia entry reflects this); there are historians who dispute this belief, however.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1946: Chen Gongbo, puppet president

Add comment June 3rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Chen Gongbo, president of China under the Japanese occupation, was shot for treason.

Briefly a Communist in his youth, Chen was Kuomintang state minister, then was pulled into the Japanese puppet government.

He served from 1940 as Mayor of Shanghai and speaker of the legislature, and late in 1944 became Acting President and soon actual President when ailing President Wang Jingwei traveled to Japan for medical treatment and died.

It was not long before Chen too had to relocate to Japan — in his case, as a fugitive. He was arrested and extradited back to China, where he defended himself from charges of collaboration arguing that he had acted only out of personal loyalty to his friend Wang. “Soon I will be reunited with Wang Jingwei in the next world,” was his tragic and filial sentiment upon learning his fate.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Shot,Treason

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1453: Alvaro de Luna, Spanish favorite

Add comment June 2nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1453, the man who was once the power behind Castile’s throne became its foremost cautionary metaphor.

The greatest privado — royal favorite — in Spain’s annals, Alvaro de Luna (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Spanish) sprang from noble albeit illiterate stock. He came to the Castilian court in 1410 as a witty and talented young page and adroitly got his hooks into the five-year-old crown prince, the future Juan II.

Quite uncommonly for a royal favorite, Don Alvaro held his king’s affection for many decades, and even while enriching himself into the mightiest subject in the land, he energetically served his prince’s interest.

Chief among these was managing the truculent nobility who would surely have dominated the weak-willed Juan but for his capable lieutenant — who was known from 1423 ask the Constable of Castile and Count of San Esteban de Gormaz in 1423. Don Alvaro proved a consummate politico, scheming to deflect the ambitions of Juan’s rivals and to consolidate the power of the throne … which meant his own power, too. To a very great degree the favorite was the real sovereign, until he suddenly wasn’t.

“Alvaro de Luna would probably not be particularly consoled by the judgement of modern historians,” observes a wry James Boyden in The World of the Favourite** — for they “praise his efforts on behalf of Juan II for opening the way to royal absolutism in Castile, citing his own arbitrary death sentence as the clinching proof of the newfound powers of the crown.”

Don Alvaro’s downfall from his post of seemingly unassailable preeminence satisfied every literary device imaginable, beginning with poetic justice.

When Juan’s first wife, Maria of Aragon, died in 1445 — and Don Alvaro’s own hand has been suspected in that death — the Constable managed Juan’s pivot to 19-year-old Portuguese princess Isabella as the successor queen.

From her advantageous position in the king’s bed, Isabella soon began to work against Don Alvaro. She resented his intrusions into even their most intimate chambers, and she surely feared sharing the fate of her predecessor, Maria. Eventually, her arguments carried the day. Boyden once again:

It is difficult to imagine a more striking illustration of the transitory nature of earthly fortune than the spectacle of the constable’s execution in a public square of Valladolid on 2 June 1453. Certainly the event caught the imagination of contemporary poets. ‘Look then to that great Constable,’ wrote Jorge Manrique, ‘the Master whom we knew so deeply favoured by the king / And yet even of him nothing more need be said than that we saw him beheaded. / His limitless treasures, his towns and villages, his power of command / What did they bring him but tears? / What were they to him except sorrows at the leaving?’

According to Juan II, Don Alvaro’s principal crime was that he ‘has for a long time held and usurped a chief position near me and in my household and court’, and despite having been admonished about his excessive pride and effrontery ‘he has persevered in it … grasping more power to himself each day, excessively, without temperance or measure, so that there remains to me no more room to rule and administer my kingdoms personally, nor to maintain my towns in justice and truth and law …’

Not surprisingly, the constable saw matters in another light. While the king alleged usurpation of his royal authority, Don Alvaro responded with a charge of ingratitude, levelled in a tone meant to convey the sadness and resignation of a loyal servant stripped at last of his illusions. Rather than withdraw into a well-deserved retirement after forty-five years of service, he wrote,

I chose … to serve as I was in duty bound and as I felt the situation demanded; I deceived myself, for this service has been the cause of my misfortune. How bitter that I should find myself deprived of liberty who more than once have risked life and fortune to preserve your highness’s freedom! I am well aware that for my great sins I have angered God, and I will consider it a boon if I can placate his rage through these travails.

This appeal to justice was accompanied by an offer of treasure, but neither swayed the king, who was so intent upon Don Alvaro’s destruction that he would finally order his execution despite the failure of a hand-picked tribunal to render a clear sentence of death.

Although it cut no ice with his king, Alvaro de Luna’s posture of betrayed fidelity — his courage and dignity on the scaffold, ere his throat was cut and his severed head mounted on a hook — helped to salvage what might easily have become a hateful reputation among Spaniards. The annalist Pedro de Escavias recorded that Don Alvaro “struck terror into all who saw him” but “he died with a good countenance and good courage, as a knight and a faithful Christian should. May God forgive him, for he handled many great matters in the days when he enjoyed the king’s favour.” (Quoted in the out-of-print volume The Greatest Man Uncrowned: A Study of the Fall of Don Alvaro de Luna) This respectful epitaph is evident in the numerous artistic treatments around the Constable’s corpse.


Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Ramirez Ibanez Manual (1884)

Collection to Bury the Body of Alvaro de Luna, by Jose Maria Rodriguez de Losada (1867)

Burial of Alvaro de Luna, by Eduardo Cano de la Pena (19th century).

Juan’s rancor did not extend to denying his favorite an ornate tomb in Toledo Cathedral. Like all the best sovereign-favorite pairs — Richelieu comes to mind — Juan II soon followed to the grave his secret-sharer, dying in July 1454 allegedly stricken with remorse.† His daughter was Isabella of Castile, famed of Christopher Columbus sponsorship.

* There appears to be some ambiguity among sources between June 2 and June 3 whose resolution lies beyond the reach of myself and perhaps of any human. I tentatively prefer June 2 based on a preponderance of citations, and because June 3 was a Sunday.

** There’s also a fine essay on our principal to be found in The Emergence of León-Castile c.1065-1500: Essays Presented to J.F. O’Callaghan.

† However, Juan’s knowledge of his own failing health and a desire to disencumber his successors of this overmighty minister have also been suggested as reasons for Don Alvaro’s destruction. The favorite treads a very treacherous road indeed.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Spain

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1661: Archibald Campbell

Add comment May 27th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1661, Presbyterian lord Archibald Campbell, the first Marquess of Argyll, lost his head at Edinburgh.

Once a privy councilor to King Charles I, “Red Argyll” had been in the 1640s a great champion of Scottish national liberty and a leader of the Presbyterians in the many-sided wars that tore apart the British Isles.

Scotland’s Presbyterians — who favored bottom-up church governance as opposed to the crown-controlled selection of bishops that’s known as episcopacy — made an initial alliance with English Parliamentarians to support one another in their mutual hostilities with King Charles I. And in Scotland’s civil war in the mid-1640s, Argyll’s Presbyterians defeated the Earl of Montrose‘s royalists.

But the failure of Oliver Cromwell‘s similarly victorious Parliament to deliver on its covenant fractured the Presbyterian party and drove Argyll to the political sideline.

Argyll’s own opposition to other Presbyterians’ attempted engagement with the imprisoned Charles I became untenable when, to the horror of his countrymen, Charles was beheaded by Parliament. As his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography notes, Charles’s execution “completely upset his calculations, which had all along been founded on a close union between the parliaments of Scotland England … the results of his safe and prudent policy were ruthlessly annihilated … [and] Argyll lost his presence of mind, and therefore his control of events in this stupendous conjuncture, and became as much a puppet in the hands of contending factions as was Charles II.” His growing ranks of foes derisively nicknamed him the “Glaed-Eyed Marquis”, attributing an obvious metaphorical import to his imperfect eyesight.

“Myself encountered so many difficulties that all remedies that were applied had the quite contrary operation,” he later wrote of those years when his influence waned. “[I was] a distracted man of a distracted subject in a distracted time wherein I lived.” It did not wane all at once: Argyll had the honor of crowning King Charles II at Scone on the first of January, 1651, and even tested the king with dynastic marriage inquiries for his daughter. (No dice.)

But as events ran away from him he fell into debt, disgrace, and irrelevancy.

When Charles II resumed the throne in 1660, Argyll presented himself at the court of his would-be father-in-law, and was surprised to find himself immediately thrown in the Tower. Like the Presbyterian cause itself, he was permanently and tragically alienated from both factions of the English Civil War: Cromwell always suspected Argyll a royalist for that whole crowning-the-king thing, and Charles always resented Argyll for his part in the destruction of his father.

The Glaed-Eyed Marquis found himself shipped off to Edinburgh to stand trial for treason. Although records of the trial are lost, it’s said that he was on the verge of total acquittal when Cromwell’s former commander in Scotland, George Monck, delivered a packet of incriminating letters. This story might be apocryphal but Argyll lost his head all the same, on Edinburgh’s distinctive Maiden.

Peruse here Argyll’s tart and downright comical last will and testament, satirizing many of the surviving figures of the day and bidding his heirs to lay his body “so shallow, that at the next trump of sedition, it may by the same raise-devil directory [i.e., Parliament] be conjured up again, and meet my exalted head, that bound-mark of Presbytery, its ne plus ultra, ‘Hitherto shall you go and no further.'”


Memorial to Archibald Campbell in Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral with the epitaph “I set the Crown on the King’s Head. He hastens me to a better Crown than his own.” (cc) image from Kim Traynor.

Argyll’s son and heir, also named Archibald Campbell, was himself executed in 1685 for organizing a Scottish “Argyll’s Rising” against King James II in alliance with the Duke of Monmouth. Their descendants still maintain the rank of Duke of Argyll to this day.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Gallows Humor,History,Maiden,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Treason

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1918: Edla Sofia Hjulgrén, Finnish parliamentarian

Add comment May 22nd, 2018 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, former Member of Parliament Edla Sofia Hjulgrén was shot during the Finnish Civil War.

A labor activist for many years, Hjulgrén (English Wikipedia entry | the vastly more detailed Finnish) won election to the Eduskunta in 1913 as a Social Democrat.*

At the time, Finland was still a Grand Duchy within tsarist Russia. When the Russian revolutionaries who conquered power in St. Petersburg in 1917 proved reluctant to agree to Finnish independence, the Finns just declared it, and a civil war ensued in the first months of 1918 — between Soviet-backed Red Guards and German-backed White Guards.

The Whites won a nasty war thick with atrocities on both sides. Although she was a pacifist, our Sofia Hjulgrén was among hundreds of Red supporters swept up after the decisive Battle of Vyborg clinched White victory. She was shot there — it’s Viipuri to the Finns, and Vyborg to the Russians — in the cemetery. The Soviets got Vyborg back in a subsequent war with Finland, and erected a monument there to the hundreds of victims of the Whites’ April-May 1918 Vyborg Massacre.


(cc) image by Olga.

* Finland boasts of being the first legislature in the world with full gender equality — meaning that, as of 1906, women enjoyed full equality both to vote and to stand for office. Women comprised above a tenth of its parliamentary delegates on the eve of Finland’s independence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Finland,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1922: Cemal Azmi, the butcher of Trabzon

Add comment April 17th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1922, a Turkish official implicated in the Armenian genocide had a death sentence enforced upon him … by an assassin’s bullet.

Cemal Azmi, wartime governor of the Black Sea littoral of Trabzon,* was the point person in his region for the murder of some 50,000 Armenians. One distinctive twist in Trabzon (though by no means confined to that locality) was the prevalent use of drowning for cost-effective wholesale murder.

The Italian consul in Trabzon, Giacomo Gorrini — a veteran diplomat who hereafter would become consumed by the Armenian community’s travails until his death in 1940 — gave a heartbreaking account. His accounts of systematic mass drownings were corroborated by many other witnesses, including Turkey’s wartime German allies.

The passing of the gangs of Armenian exiles beneath the windows and before the door of the Consulate; their prayers for help, when neither I nor any other could do anything to answer them; the city in a state of siege, guarded at every point by 15,000 troops in complete war equipment, by thousands of police agents, by bands of volunteers and by the members of the “Committee of Union and Progress”; the lamentations, the tears, the abandonments, the imprecations, the many suicides, the instantaneous deaths from sheer terror, the sudden unhingeing of men’s reason, the conflagrations, the shooting of victims in the city, the ruthless searches through the houses and in the countryside; the hundreds of corpses found every day along the exile road; the young women converted by force to Islam or exiled like the rest; the children torn away from their families or from the Christian schools, and handed over by force to Moslem families, or else placed by hundreds on board ship in nothing but their shirts, and then capsized and drowned in the Black Sea and the River Deyirmen Dere — these are my last ineffaceable memories of Trebizond, memories which still, at a month’s distance, torment my soul and almost drive me frantic.

According to the tribunal that tried him in absentia in 1919, Governor Azmi personally ordered many such mass drownings. He also used the Red Crescent hospital to lodge young Armenian girls for his use as sex slaves, only to have them killed late in the war to tie up loose ends. To complete his cycle of deadly sins, Azmi also took liberal advantage of the looting opportunity afforded by the speedy vanishing of Armenian subjects.

Azmi absconded rather than face postwar prosecution but his symbolic death sentence gained bodily force via Armenian revolutionaries’ Operation Nemesis: a campaign to assassinate the chief authors of the genocide.

Nemesis’s most famous targets were the “Three Pashas” who ruled the Ottoman Empire during World War I. (They successfully murdered two of the three.) But Azmi was on the list as well, and on April 17, 1922, a pair of Armenian hit men gunned him down on the Berlin’s Uhlandstrasse along with another genocidaire, Behaeddin Shakir. The assassins weren’t even arrested.

* Centuries before, Trabzon’s Byzantine precursor, Trebizond, had been the last redoubt of the vanishing Roman Empire.

** Vahakn Dadrian, “Children as Victims of Genocide: The Armenian Case,” Journal of Genocide Research, 2003, 5(3). The same author has written widely on the Armenian genocide, including but not limited to Azmi’s conduct in Trabzon; also see his “The Turkish Military Tribunal’s Prosecution of the Authors of the Armenian Genocide: Four Major Court-Martial Series” (Holocaust & Genocide Studies, 1997 11(28) and “The Armenian Genocide as a Dual Problem of National and International Law” (University of St. Thomas Journal of Law and Public Policy, 2010, 4(2)).

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Armenia,Borderline "Executions",Death Penalty,Germany,History,Murder,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Public Executions,Shot,Summary Executions,Turkey,War Crimes

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1489: Hans Waldmann, mayor of Zurich

Add comment April 6th, 2018 Headsman

An equestrian monument to Hans Waldmann at Zurich’s the Münsterhof plaza reminds of that onetime mayor’s beheading on this date in 1489.


(cc) image from Roland zh.

His city’s most outstanding personality of the age, Waldmann (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed German) sprang from merchant stock. He’d soared to the top in his Swiss city-state via his gift for military command, which stood Zurich in good stead during the Burgundian Wars.

Despite his war heroism, the peasantry of Zurich’s rural proximities soon grew to hate Waldmann as the spear tip of the urban oligarchy. Notoriously, he ordered the destruction of peasants’ dogs to preserve the hunting privilege for the powerful.

On the first of April, a revolt toppled Waldmann’s authority. He was arrested on a diverse slate of accusations including treason, peculation, and sexual corruption.

For the four days intervening, he endured “ceaseless torture, hanging, and stretching,” but the mayor retained enough vigor to walk “manly” and “proud” (in the words of a Bernese observer) to his scaffold.


Waldmann’s Farewell, by Johann Caspar Bosshardt (1847).

Detail view (click for the full-page illustration) of Hans Waldmann’s beheading, from the Lucerne Chronicle (1513).

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Public Executions,Soldiers,Switzerland,Torture,Wrongful Executions

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1900: Joseph Hurst

Add comment March 30th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1900, Joseph Hurst hanged in Glendive, Montana for murdering Sheriff Dominick Cavanaugh — whom Hurst had run against in the most recent election. A literal life-and-death ballot!

Did he assassinate a political opponent to gain his office? (Hurst was briefly appointed to the sheriff’s post after Cavanaugh’s murder, before the investigation turned against him.) Or, was he railroaded by a prejudiced town? “If the evidence upon which this man has been convicted and twice sentenced to death, had been laid before me as the prosecuting officer of this county,” wrote another Montana district attorney in a widely circulated missive, “I should be ashamed to think I had compelled Hurst to employ a lawyer and submit to a prosecution before a magistrate.”

The question generated a furious controversy in its time, inundating Gov. Robert Burns Smith with a record deluge of mercy appeals from around the American West. Newspapers drew up column-inches for vigorous briefs as to Hurst’s innocence or guilt.

As is frequently the case, partisan political fissures reached all the way to bedrock disagreement about reality itself, for although Hurst expressed his innocence on the scaffold the respective sides circulated opposing contentions about whether he did or did not privately confess the crime in the end.

A representative bit of the original newspaper coverage. More can be found in Officer Down, by Jim Jones.


Anaconda Standard, February 28, 1900


Anaconda Standard, March 4, 1900


Anaconda Standard, March 13, 1900


Helena Independent, March 30, 1900.


Butte Weekly Miner, April 5, 1900


A different story from the very same Butte Weekly Miner, April 5, 1900

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Montana,Murder,Politicians,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1549: Thomas Seymour, more wit than judgment

Add comment March 20th, 2018 Headsman

Having been elevated to the shadow of the throne by one sibling, Thomas Seymour on this date in 1549 was seen to the block by another sibling.

The brother of Henry VIII’s favorite queen, Jane Seymour, our Thomas was when that burly king kicked the bucket beautifully positioned for a share of power, being named to the regency council that would govern for his nephew, nine-year-old heir Edward VI.

What dreams may come!

But Thomas Seymour would find like many a Tudor courtier before and after him, that around the throne it thunders.

His vaunting ambitions were blocked by the oldest ogre of all, big brother: Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset, who surpassed our Thomas in ability and seniority alike, was the man who rose to the top of the regency and as Lord Protector exercised sovereignty in the child-king’s name. “As the Duke was elder in Years, so was he more staid in Behaviour,” one history has it, observing that Thomas Seymour “was fierce in Courage, courtly in Fashion, in Personage stately, in Voice magnificent, but somewhat empty of Matter.”

Courageous, empty Thomas — whom we shall call Sudeley for the sake of his barony* and our clarity — took a more generous estimate of his own talents and the boys soon festered a sibling rivalry of uncommon consequence. Our man connived to attract the favor of young Edward, inveigling and cajoling him to exercise his kingly prerogatives to lever Somerset out and Sudeley in. This campaign found little traction among fellow regents and finally came to the desperate strait of Sudeley skulking on the grounds of Hampton Court Palace one night in January 1549 in a possible adventure to kidnap the king. Instead, it landed him in the Tower with treason charges pending after he gave away the game by shooting one of the king’s barking dogs. It would afterwards emerge that he had conspired with a corrupted official of the mint to coin him a sum sufficient to furnish the rebellious army he had allegedly already begun recruiting.

King Edward wasn’t the only underage royal to labor under Sudeley’s excessive attentions.

This chancer had married the former queen, Catherine Parr, and in early 1548 they had the young princess ElizabethAnne Boleyn‘s daughter, the future queen, who was here all of 14 years old** — living with them at Chelsea. Pushing 40, the cocksure Sudeley got far too friendly with Elizabeth, repeatedly entering her chambers early in the morning despite the reprimands of Elizabeth’s governess and playing a lot of slap and tickle. It’s ambiguous just how far this frolic went and what Elizabeth thought about it but despite Catherine Parr’s occasional participation in such romps(!) Sudeley did eventually cross his wife’s boundary for good, giving, and game. As that governess explained,

the Admiral [Sudeley] had loved the Princess but too well, and had so done for a long while … [until] the Queen [Catherine Parr], suspecting too often access of the Admiral to the lady Elizabeth’s Grace, came suddenly upon them, when they were all alone (he having her in his arms). Whereupon the Queen fell out both with the Lord Admiral and with her Grace also … And this was not long before they parted asunder their families [households].

By the time Sudeley fell, he had resumed his suit of Elizabeth, Catherine Parr having died late in 1548 from childbirth — or, as was rumored, poison. It wasn’t merely that Sudeley was on the perv; he had married Catherine Parr secretly, against the will of the council, and that he now intended the princess should succeed the queen in his bed augured a seditious intent. The regents found out about it and swiped left, and their cockblock might have been the spur for Sudeley’s desperate attempt to grab the king’s own person; certainly his efforts to wed the princess featured among the many charges laid by the bill of attainder that claimed Sudeley’s head.

Her stalker’s attentions also put Elizabeth under close questioning and had she not the sangfroid to deny resolutely any part in the man’s schemes her history, and ours, might have gone very differently. It’s not the last time that Elizabeth proved her mettle under interrogation.

As for Thomas Seymour himself, a delicate proceedings unfolded in the winter of 1549 with the Lord Protector and the King ultimately both assenting to a fatal prosecution of their kinsman, and perhaps also to a convenient magnification of his faults. For example, it was said that he went scheming literally all the way to the block, having prepared secret revengeful letters for posthumous delivery intended to set the princesses Mary and Elizabeth against his brother; this detail would lead Hugh Latimer to preach about the Lord Admiral — “a covetous man … an ambitious man … a seditious man, a contemner of common prayer”:

As touching the kind of his death, whether he be saved or no, I refer that to God only. What God can do, I can tell. I will not deny, but that he may in the twinkling of an eye save a man, and turn his heart. What he did, I cannot tell. And when a man hath two strokes with an axe, who can tell but that between two strokes he doth repent? It is very hard to judge. Well, I will not go so nigh to work; but this I will say, if they ask me what I think of his death, that he died very dangerously, irksomely, horribly.

Edward Seymour himself set his own hand to his brother’s death warrant in concert with the rest of the regency council. In a fine case study for parents who might wish to impress quarreling children with their interest in finding common purpose, Edward met the same fate inside of three years.

As for the savvy young Elizabeth, this early brush with reckless sexuality, political intrigue, and the perpetual proximity of the headsman’s axe, was perhaps an instructive event that would help to see her to her own glory. Her would-be lover had admirable qualities but she perceived well enough how they weighed as compared to his incontinence, and she quipped the definitive epitaph upon receiving news of his destruction: “This day died a man of much wit and very little judgement.”

* Sudeley Castle still stands today, and is open to tourists.

** Also crashing at the maison Sudeley in 1548: Lady Jane Grey. One of Sudeley’s numerous vain machinations was to orchestrate a Jane Grey-Edward VI marriage.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Nobility,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Treason

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222: Elagabalus

3 comments March 11th, 2018 Headsman

March 11, 222 marked the downfall of the Roman emperor Elagabalus (or Heliogabalus, in the Greek rendering).*

Notorious to posterity for lapping the field in outrageous sensuality, he was the 14-year-old cousin of the deposed brute Caracalla and stepped into the purple because his crafty grandma won the civil war that ensued Caracalla’s assassination.

By family heredity he was by that time already the high priest of the Syrian sun-god Elagabalus,** in the city of Emesa (present-day Homs, Syria). History has flattered the youth with the name of his novel god, although in life the former was simply Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. By any name, his eastern affectations would smell as foul to the Romans.

We’re forever constrained by the partiality of our few sources when it comes to antiquity and the possibility cannot be dismissed that the bizarre and alien portrait remaining us is mostly the outlandish caricature of his foes. However, such sources as we have unanimously characterize Elagabalus as — per Gibbon’s summary — “corrupted by his youth, his country, and his fortune” and it is this that has made his name a western metonym for for the sybaritic Oriental despot. The chroniclers practically compete for outlandish anecdotes of hedonism (the very dubious Historia Augusta) …

He would have perfumes from India burned without any coals in order that the fumes might fill his apartments. Even while a commoner he never made a journey with fewer than sixty wagons, though his grandmother Varia used to protest that he would squander all his substance; but after he became emperor he would take with him, it is said, as many as six hundred, asserting that the king of the Persians travelled with ten thousand camels and Nero with five hundred carriages. The reason for all these vehicles was the vast number of his procurers and bawds, harlots, catamites and lusty partners in depravity. In the public baths he always bathed with the women, and he even treated them himself with a depilatory ointment, which he applied also to his own beard, and shameful though it be to say it, in the same place where the women were treated and at the same hour. He shaved his minions’ groins, using the razor with his own hand — with which he would then shave his beard. He would strew gold and silver dust about a portico and then lament that he could not strew the dust of amber also; and he did this often when he proceeded on foot to his horse or his carriage, as they do today with golden sand.

… and tyranny (Cassius Dio)

Silius Messalla and Pomponius Bassus were condemned to death by the senate, on the charge of being displeased at what the emperor was doing. For he did not hesitate to write this charge against them even to the senate, calling them investigators of his life and censors of what went on in the palace. “The proofs of their plots I have not sent you,” he wrote, “because it would be useless to read them, as the men are already dead.”


Detail view (click for the full image) of The Roses of Heliogabalus, by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1888). The work alludes to one of the boy-emperor’s crimes of decadence recounted in the Historia Augusta: “In a banqueting-room with a reversible ceiling he once overwhelmed his parasites with violets and other flowers, so that some were actually smothered to death, being unable to crawl out to the top.”

Most scandalous to Romans, or at least most expedient for his foes’ vituperations, were the adolescent’s outrageous transgressions of masculinity — again, we must underscore, “alleged”. They’re clearly deployed by his enemies to magnify Elagabalus’s cultural easternness, and we might suspect them to also hint at the emasculating power of the teenager’s mother and grandmother who were the true chiefs of state (and who were outrageously admitted to the Senate). Yet if we are to believe the half of what we read of Elagabalus then this effeminate priest-king constitutes one of history’s most notable transgender or genderfluid figures.

Let’s hear at some length from the tittering Cassius Dio, calling the emperor “Sardanapalus” to exoticize him by connection to Assyria.†

When trying someone in court he really had more or less the appearance of a man, but everywhere else he showed affectations in his actions and in the quality of his voice. For instance, he used to dance, not only in the orchestra, but also, in a way, even while walking, performing sacrifices, receiving salutations, or delivering a speech. And finally, — to go back now to the story which I began, — he was bestowed in marriage and was termed wife, mistress, and queen. He worked with wool, sometimes wore a hair-net, and painted his eyes, daubing them with white lead and alkanet. Once, indeed, he shaved his chin and held a festival to mark the event; but after that he had the hairs plucked out, so as to look more like a woman. And he often reclined while receiving the salutations of the senators. The husband of this “woman” was Hierocles, a Carian slave, once the favourite of Gordius, from whom he had learned to drive a chariot. It was in this connexion that he won the emperor’s favour by a most remarkable chance. It seems that in a certain race Hierocles fell out of his chariot just opposite the seat of Sardanapalus, losing his helmet in his fall, and being still beardless and adorned with a crown of yellow hair, he attracted the attention of the emperor and was immediately rushed to the palace; and there by his nocturnal feats he captivated Sardanapalus more than ever and became exceedingly powerful. Indeed, he even had greater influence than the emperor himself, and it was thought a small thing that his mother, while still a slave, should be brought to Rome by soldiers and be numbered among the wives of ex-consuls. Certain other men, too, were frequently honoured by the emperor and became powerful, some because they had joined in his uprising and others because they committed adultery with him. For he wished to have the reputation of committing adultery, so that in this respect, too, he might imitate the most lewd women; and he would often allow himself to be caught in the very act, in consequence of which he used to be violently upbraided by his “husband” and beaten, so that he had black eyes. His affection for this “husband” was no light inclination, but an ardent and firmly fixed passion, so much so that he not only did not become vexed at any such harsh treatment, but on the contrary loved him the more for it and wished to make him Caesar in very fact; and he even threatened his grandmother when she opposed him in this matter, and he became at odds with the soldiers largely on this man’s account. This was one of the things that was destined to lead to his destruction.

Aurelius Zoticus, a native of Smyrna, whom they also called “Cook,” after his father’s trade, incurred the emperor’s thorough love and thorough hatred, and for the latter reason his life was saved. This Aurelius not only had a body that was beautiful all over, seeing that he was an athlete, but in particular he greatly surpassed all others in the size of his private parts. This fact was reported to the emperor by those who were on the look-out for such things, and the man was suddenly whisked away from the games and brought to Rome, accompanied by an immense escort, larger than Abgarus had had in the reign of Severus or Tiridates in that of Nero. He was appointed cubicularius before he had even been seen by the emperor, was honoured by the name of the latter’s grandfather, Avitus, was adorned with garlands as at a festival, and entered the palace lighted by the glare of many torches. Sardanapalus, on seeing him, sprang up with rhythmic movements, and then, when Aurelius addressed him with the usual salutation, “My Lord Emperor, Hail!” he bent his neck so as to assume a ravishing feminine pose, and turning his eyes upon him with a melting gaze, answered without any hesitation: “Call me not Lord, for I am a Lady.” Then Sardanapalus immediately joined him in the bath, and finding him when stripped to be equal to his reputation, burned with even greater lust, reclined on his breast, and took dinner, like some loved mistress, in his bosom. But Hierocles fearing that Zoticus would captivate the emperor more completely than he himself could, and that he might therefore suffer some terrible fate at his hands, as often happens in the case of rival lovers, caused the cup-bearers, who were well disposed toward him, to administer a drug that abated the other’s manly prowess. And so Zoticus, after a whole night of embarrassment, being unable to secure an erection, was deprived of all the honours that he had received, and was driven out of the palace, out of Rome, and later out of the rest of Italy; and this saved his life.

He carried his lewdness to such a point that he asked the physicians to contrive a woman’s vagina in his body by means of an incision, promising them large sums for doing so.

Some books about Elagabalus

The essential problem for Elagabalus was that regardless the precise reality of the behavior his sure cultural distance from Roman manners was also a cultural distance from Roman soldiers — the men whose power to arbitrate succession had placed him in the purple to begin with. The reader may hypothesize the direction of causality but Elagabalus’s historical reputation proves that he failed to bridge that distance.

The fickle Praetorian Guard soon harbored an accelerating preference for Elagabalus’s cousin and heir Severus Alexander, a moderate and respectable Roman youth. Elagabalus triggered his own downfall, and summary deaths meted out to his associates and hangers-on like the hated charioteer/lover Hierocles, with an ill-considered attempt to disinherit this emerging rival. For this narrative we turn to Herodian, a contemporary of events who has disdain for the emperor’s weird god and his “dancing and prancing” but is not nearly so colorful on the subject of his purported sexual depravity. (For Herodian, Elagabalus’s “mockery of human marriage” consists in taking and discarding several different wives, including a Vestal Virgin.)

the emperor undertook to strip Alexander of the honor of caesar, and the youth was no longer to be seen at public addresses or in public processions.

[11 or 12 March 222] But the soldiers called for Alexander and were angry because he had been removed from his imperial post. Heliogabalus circulated a rumor that Alexander was dying, to see how the praetorians would react to the news. When they did not see the youth, the praetorians were deeply grieved and enraged by the report; they refused to send the regular contingent of guards to the emperor and remained in the camp, demanding to see Alexander in the temple there.

Thoroughly frightened, Heliogabalus placed Alexander in the imperial litter, which was richly decorated with gold and precious gems, and set out with him for the praetorian camp. The guards opened the gates and, receiving them inside, brought the two youths to the temple in the camp.

They welcomed Alexander with enthusiastic cheers, but ignored the emperor. Fuming at this treatment, although he spent the night in the camp, Heliogabalus unleashed the fury of his wrath against the praetorians. He ordered the arrest and punishment of the guards who had cheered Alexander openly and enthusiastically, pretending that these were responsible for the revolt and uproar.

The praetorians were enraged by this order; since they had other reasons, also, for hating Heliogabalus, they wished now to rid themselves of so disgraceful an emperor, and believed, too, that they should rescue the praetorians under arrest. Considering the occasion ideal and the provocation just, they killed Heliogabalus and his mother [Julia] Soaemias (for she was in the camp as Augusta and as his mother), together with all his attendants who were seized in the camp and who seemed to be his associates and companions in evil.

They gave the bodies of Heliogabalus and Soaemias to those who wanted to drag them about and abuse them; when the bodies had been dragged throughout the city, the mutilated corpses were thrown into the public sewer which flows into the Tiber.

More detail on reprisals — not exactly dated — comes from Cassius Dio:

His mother, who embraced him and clung tightly to him, perished with him; their heads were cut off and their bodies, after being stripped naked, were first dragged all over the city, and then the mother’s body was cast aside somewhere or other, while his was thrown into the river.

With him perished, among others, Hierocles and the prefects; also Aurelius Eubulus, who was an Emesene by birth and had gone so far in lewdness and debauchery that his surrender had been demanded even by the populace before this. He had been in charge of the fiscus, and there was nothing that he did not confiscate. So now he was torn to pieces by the populace and the soldiers; and Fulvius, the city prefect, perished at the same time with him.

The History of Rome podcast covers Elagabalus in episode 104.

* As pertains the mandate of this here site Elagabalus’s death is far more a murder than an execution, while the actual and threatened executions surrounding this murder are not necessarily dated, and verge towards lynchings. But between them we have a patina of somewhat orchestrated state violence with a somewhat dependable calendar peg that will suffice for a worthy cheat.

** The deity Elagabalus was among several pagan forerunners of the later sun god Sol Invictus, whose cult in turn became eventually conflated with another strange Asian religion, Christianity. There is a reading (distinctly a minority one) of Elagabalus as Rome’s Akhenaten, an unsuccessful proto-monotheist traduced by the incumbent priests who defeated his before-his-time religious revolution.

† Cassius Dio was a senatorial historian which both positioned him to know the scandalous things he reported and problematically incentivized him to concoct scandalous things to report. In particular we should note that Elagabalus’s successor Severus Alexander was personally and politically tight with Cassius Dio and, the historian boasts, “honoured me in various ways, especially by appointing me to be consul for the second time, as his colleague, and taking upon himself personally the responsibility of meeting the expenditures of my office.” In reading Cassius Dio we read the party line of the post-Elagabalus regime.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Italy,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Roman Empire,Royalty,Scandal,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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