Posts filed under 'Revolutionaries'

1822: Augustin Joseph Caron, entrapped

Add comment October 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1822, French Lt. Col. Augustin Joseph Caron was shot at Strasbourg as a rebel.

Little is known of his background, but Caron (English Wikipedia entry | French) enlisted in his army during the revolutionary year of 1791 and advanced into command positions under Napoleon. From his later conduct it’s apparent that these years shaped a political passion that would be starkly at odds with the post-Napoleon Bourbon restoration.

As we have noted elsewhere on this site France’s Liberal (often Bonapartist) opposition during these years was urged by the persecution of the monarchist party into conspiracy as the common coin of its politics.

Out of this mire grew both charbonnerie (France’s analogue to the carbonari terrorists who proliferated in Italy) and an overvigilant secret police whose campaigns of entrapment and threat exaggeration did nothing so well as to further obscure the line between mundane opposition and treason.

The strange interplay between these midnight foes would shape the fate of Col. Caron.

Caron’s path to execution begins with the thwarted rising of the Belfort garrison for New Year’s 1822 — a real plot that the government spies were able to squelch. This resulted in a number of executions, by dint of which it has detailed in these very pages.

Caron enters this story in its second chapter: a pensioned former officer of known Bonapartist sympathies, Caron was (with another man named Roger) baited by police spies into mounting an attempted raid on Colmar prison where the arrested Belfort conspirators were being held. Officers chosen to play the part were detailed to meet him as “conspirators” and march with him to Colmar, allowing Caron to make compromising “Vive l’Empereur” exhortations along the way, before finally arresting him.

Though Caron himself had been a willing participant who most certainly did intend to raise a mutiny, the ridiculous spectacle of His Majesty’s warriors congratulating themselves for crushing a plot that they themselves controlled from the get-go came to crystallize the Liberal fulminations against abusive use of agents provocateur. As Alan Barrie Spitzer puts it in Old Hatreds and Young Hopes: The French Carbonari against the Bourbon Restoration,

the means employed to net such a minor, and such a vulnerable, agitator gave the critics of the regime and the defenders of other conspirators the opportunity to assimilate all the operations of the political police to this contemptible one. The government was placed on the defensive from the first. It proved difficult to demonstrate the Caron and Roger had initiated the seditious proposals … Two entire squadrons of chasseurs had conducted their brilliant operation to net only the two original suspects. And then there was the abrasive question of who, under what circumstances, shouted out “Vive l’Empereur!” — that is, tempted innocent passersby-into political crime. The original story … described the squadrons as riding through the countryside crying “Vive l’Empereur,” and innocently wondered whether these purveyors of seditious slogans would be arrested along with Caron, their alleged “leader.”

One Liberal deputy sneeringly pictured future French veterans boasting of their service, “I was in those squadrons that rode through the countryside of the Haut-Rhin shouting ‘Vive l’Empereur!’ in order to test the disposition of the inhabitants.” Indeed, what if the dispositions had been otherwise? It had been only a few years since the emperor really had returned from exile and raised a brief civil war; the idea that the military had risked triggering “the insurrection of a town and the massacre of its inhabitants” for no better reason than to compromise an utter nobody blossomed into a gigantic scandal. Caron became France’s metonym for a patsy;* demands to grant Caron leniency and turn the investigation against his persecutors multiplied discomfitingly.

But this was only one of several high-profile trials against anti-Bourbon plotters unfolding in 1822, and the Liberal denunciations against them practically staked the government’s credibility upon their outcome. So the government saw to the outcome it required — by invoking Caron’s military rank to have him transferred out of the civilian justice system and tried by a military tribunal that would be sure to convict him. Just to complete the shambles, the execution was then hurriedly conducted before Caron’s appeal could be brought before the Court of Cassation.

The Journal of the Lower Rhine gives the following details concerning the execution of Colonel Caron: —

Colonel Caron, who was unanimously condemned to death for the crime of embauchage [“hiring” -ed], by the first permanent council of war of this division, the judgment of which was likewise unanimously confirmed by the council of revision, was executed at two o’clock in the afternoon, in the presence of a small detachment of the garrison, and a numerous concourse of people who were attracted by curiosity. The Abbe Schittig zealously administered to him the consolations of religion, which he received with humility, and he died with the courage of a Christian and an old soldier. Caron was alone in a carriage, amidst the retinue which conducted him to the place of execution. At the entrance of the horn-work, called Finkmatt, where the execution took place, he alighted from the carriage without the assistance of the driver. On arriving in front of the 12 men who were to be his executioners, he refused to have his eyes bandaged. With his hat on, he himself gave the signal. Immediately the muskets were fired, and Caron was no more.

-London Times, Oct. 10, 1822

He’s buried in Strasbourg, under a slab that reads MORT POUR LA LIBERTE.

* In The Red and The Black, the main character Julien Sorel at one point muses that, should a provocative letter be attributed to his hand, it could make him “the next Colonel Caron at Colmar.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1937: Lev Karakhan, Marina Semyonova’s husband

Add comment September 20th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1937, the dancer Marina Semyonova lost her husband to the Great Purge.

Semyonova was perhaps the premier Soviet ballerina in the interwar era before the ascent of Maya Plitsetskaya* but artistic genius conferred no safety from the purges.

Least of all was that so for family members who happened to be that choicest of Stalin’s prey, an Old Bolshevik.

Semyonova’s husband Lev Karakhan (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an Armenian revolutionary and former Menshevik who joined the Bolsheviks before the October Revolution. He spent the 1920s and 1930s in various foreign policy roles, right up until the end: just a few months before his death, he had been the USSR’s ambassador to Turkey, when he received that ominous recall.

He even gave his name to a 1919 “Karakhan Manifesto”, which was Moscow’s attempt to get friendly with China.

Its author was more successful getting friendly with the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina around 1930, when both were married to other people. Their affair turned civil marriage without hampering the career of either partner; indeed, Semyonova had the honor and terror of accepting the Order of the Red Banner from Stalin’s own hands in June 1937, just a month after her husband had been arrested.

Semyonova just continued performing, because what choice did one have? She only recently died, in 2010, just shy of her 102nd birthday — as one of the legends of her craft.

* Maya Plisetskaya was also touched by Stalin’s terror: in 1937, when Maya was only 11, her father was disappeared into the gulag and killed; her mother was arrested shortly after and survived a forced labor camp in Kazakhstan.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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1972: The Trelew Massacre

1 comment August 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1972, Argentina’s junta authored the extrajudicial execution of 16 political prisoners after a jailbreak attempt.

Remembered as the Trelew Massacre (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), it’s been back in the news for an Argentine court’s 2012 conviction of executioners Emilio Del Real, Luis Sosa and Carlos Marandino for crimes against humanity.

One week to the day before those 16 crimes, more than 100 captured guerrillas from both leftist and Peronist movements attempted a mass breakout from Rawson Prison. The plan was to rendezvous with some well-timed getaway drivers who would whisk everyone to the airport where a flight waited to carry them to Salvador Allende’s Chile, which was then still a year away from its own military coup.

Between drivers failing to turn up and others arriving late to the airstrip the operation was a logistical catastrophe. Six people actually managed to escape abroad;* nineteen others, having made it to the airport but missing the flight, salvaged what they could be summoning a press conference and surrendering without resistance. They hoped to protect themselves by putting their case into the public eye.

Navy Lt. Commander Luis Emilio Sosa took the would-be fugitives to a naval base near the port of Trelew — not back to Rawson.

In the early hours of the morning on August 22, all nineteen were awoken, lined up, and machine-gunned by a detachment commanded by Sosa and Lt. Roberto Bravo. Twelve died on the scene; the others were dumped in the infirmary where four more succumbed. It would be put about, as usual, that the murdered prisoners had been shot trying to escape but that story didn’t convince many people. From exile, Juan Peron decried it as “murder”; protests and guerrilla attacks occurred on the anniversary of the slaughter for the next several years.

Sosa and Real both died just a few weeks ago, in July 2016. Beyond the three men it convicted for the Trelew affair, Argentina has also appealed unsuccessfully to the U.S. to extradite Lt. Bravo, who has been living comfortably in Miami since 1973.

* These escapees went on to various interesting — and often violent — fates in revolutionary Latin America. One of them, Enrique Gorriaran Merlo, would eventually help to assassinate exiled Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Argentina,Execution,Executions Survived,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Terrorists

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1878: Ivan Kovalsky, nihilist martyr

Add comment August 14th, 2016 Headsman


London Times, Aug. 26, 1878.

On this date in 1878,* Odessa nihilist Ivan Kovalsky was shot by directive of a military tribunal.

A “propaganda of the deed” type, Kovalsky advocated and practiced armed resistance to what one of his leaflets called “this vile government.” When tsarist police raided his printing press in January 1878, Kovalsky dramatically fought back with a revolver and a dagger while his comrades destroyed documents.

They did not slay a policeman in the process of repelling arrest, so the harsh decision to shoot Kovalsky for resisting made him a wholly political martyr — actually one of the very first in Russia’s running internal battle against her revolutionaries.

Two days later, secret police general Nikolai Mezentsov was daggered to death disembarking a carriage in broad daylight by Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky, leaving propaganda of the word to match that of his bloody deed: a manifesto titled “Death for Death” and dedicated “to the memory of Martyr Ivan Martynovich Kovalsky, shot by the secret police for defending his freedom”:

The chief of gendarmes, the leader of a gang that has all of Russia under its heel, has been killed. Few have not guessed whose hands dealt the fatal blow. But in order to avoid any confusion, we announce for general information that gendarme chief Adjutant General Mezentsov was in fact killed by us, revolutionary socialists … We tried the perpetrators and inciters of the brutalities done to us. The trial was as just as the ideas we are defending. This trial found Adjutant General Mezentsov deserving of death for his villainous deeds against us, and the sentence was carried out on Mikhailovsky Square on the morning of August 4, 1878. (Source)

The murderer successfully fled the scene and escaped into exile where he founded the Anglo-American Society of Friends of Russian Freedom and wrote widely on his estranged homeland.

* Gregorian date. The date in Russia, still on the Julian calendar at the time, was August 2.

** Submitted without comment: Stepniak’s interview in exile describing the escape from the assassination, which he attributed to “one of my friends”:

My friend rushed upon the General, stabbed him with a knife, and jumped into a carriage which was waiting for him. As you may imagine, the comrade who drove lashed the horse furiously, for rapid flight was the only alternative to being hung. Nevertheless, my friend the assassin took the whip out of the driver’s hand, saying ‘Don’t lash him, the animal is doing what he can.’ And my friend was afterwards pleased with himself for having felt this pity, for he said to himself, ‘After all, I am not altogether a bad fellow.'”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Treason,Ukraine

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1549: The Clyst Heath massacre, during the Prayer Book Rebellion

1 comment August 5th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1549 was disgraced in England by one of the bloodiest battlefield atrocities in that realm’s history: the Clyst Heath massacre.

On Whitsunday of that year, two-plus years after the Catholic-except-for-the-Pope king Henry VIII had taken to the grave his restraining orthodoxy, the late king’s reformist archbishop Thomas Cranmer introduced to English churches his magnum opus: the Book of Common Prayer.

Rudely replacing the hodgepodge of old services consecrated by tradition, not to mention the Latin tongue in which they were conducted, with the novel vernacular composition of Anne Boleyn‘s house vicar was not wildly popular in the pews — nowhere less so than in Britain’s western extrusion of Devon and Cornwall, which were as cantankerous as they were Catholic.

Peasants at church that Sunday in those provinces were gobsmacked by the alien English service they heard, and disturbances began almost immediately.

“We wyll have the masse in Latten, as was before,” congregants in the Devon village of Sampford Courtenay petitioned their priest on Whitmonday.

We wyll have … images set up again in every church, and all other ancient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.

We wyll not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have oure old service of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten as it was before.

When authorities showed up to enforce the Christmas games, there was a riot that saw someone run through with a pitchfork on the steps of the church. The Prayer Book Rebellion was on.

That summer of 1549, Common Prayer resisters in Devon and Cornwall linked up in a rude army, one with no chance at all against the larger and better-armed crown force under Lord Russell — which was reinforced as if to prove the rebels’ fears of foreign doctrinal innovations by Italian arquebusiers and German landsnecht mercenaries.*

At dawn on August 4, rebels mounted an unsuccessful attack on Lord Russell’s encampment near a windmill on Woodbury Common. We turn here to the open-source The Western Rebellion of 1549:

A fierce combat ensued, raging hottest near the windmill. Their first attack repulsed, the rebels renewed their efforts again and again, but —

notwithstanding they were of very stout stomachs and very valiantly did stand to their tackles, yet in the end they were overthrown and the most part of them slain. (Hooker)

Lord Russell’s trained men and his horsemen, at last of real service in the open field, again proved conquerors, though not without loss, for “to the strength, force, and resolution of these commons (the archers especially)” witness was borne by some that felt them. At last the insurgents were forced back on Clyst St. Mary, leaving behind many comrades either dead, dying, or prisoners.

As the insurgents retired from the hill leaving the Royal troops victorious, orders were issued for the assembly to unite in prayer and praise for the God-given victory, and the rough moor became the setting for a strange scene.

Clustering in their companies, their weapons still red with the blood of their opponents, was the mixed multitude: gentlemen with their servants and tenants levied in the surrounding country, recently devout adherents of the faith they were now called upon to exterminate: dark-browed mercenaries, still nominally papists, who later sought absolution for fighting on the behalf of heretics; heavy-jowled “almayns,” countrymen of Luther, whose protestantism varied much from the newly founded English forms; all these surrounded by the dead and dying of the recent fight.

The rebels fell back to Clyst Heath, and on the 5th, Russell’s force again advanced upon them, overcoming only with difficulty a stubborn resistance at the village of Clyst St. Mary. Though victorious in each instance, Russell’s men had had two hard days’ fighting and were sore conscious that they were invaders in hostile country. They had faced potshots from the cover of hedge rows, forays from the rear at their baggage train, and that dawn attack at the windmill. And the two days’ fighting had put some 900 prisoners in their hands.

As twilight fell on August 5, Lord Russell began thinking along the lines of Henry V at Agincourt — that these prisoners were at best an encumbrance for a troop already managing a difficult slog, and at worst a menace who might start butchering their guards should one of these rebel raids scramble his army.

And so Russell issued the expedient, conscience-curdling order.

Ere darkness fell the cries for mercy and the screams of those being murdered rang through the fields and lanes, as each soldier butchered his victim — nor age nor youth was regarded, and the shambles thus created made a terrible blot upon the scutcheon of the Royal forces.

The next day saw the Battle of Clyst Heath, at which the Cornish — having heard of the previous night’s outrage — fought furiously to the last man in a hopeless, savage affray that all but broke the rebellion. By August 16, Russell destroyed their cause for good … back where it all started, at the Battle of Sampford Courtenay. Reprisal raids continued well after the truculent country had been pacified, and some rebel leaders were only hunted down for execution months later.

* England had scads of continental soldiers of fortune knocking about at this moment because it had been hiring to whale on Scotland.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Borderline "Executions",England,Execution,God,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Put to the Sword,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

3 comments July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by the city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in theLeague of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Switzerland,Treason

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1783: Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru, rebel heir

Add comment July 19th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1783, Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru — cousin and successor to the famed indigenous rebel Tupac Amaru II — was tortured to death in Cusco.

After Tupac Amaru’s execution in May 1781, the rebellion he had kindled fell south to present-day Bolivia and fought on furiously. Diego Cristobal succeeded his kinsman in authority, and with the (unrelated, but allied) Tupac Katari could briefly command vast territories that demanded bloody Spanish reconquest over hostile terrain. “Twenty years after these events,” one 19th century chronicle reports, “This writer saw the plains of Sicasica and Calamaca, for an extent of fourteen leagues, covered with heaps of unburied human human bones, lying in the places where the wretched Indians fell, to bleach in the tropical sun.”

By early 1782, Tupac Katari had followed Tupac Amaru to the Spanish scaffold and the indigenous resistance they had led was broken into so many bleaching bones. Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru availed himself of an amnesty promised by Viceroy Agustin de Jauregui to bring the rebellion to a formal close. Diego Cristobal even lived for some months thereafter in peace.

But if Spain’s viceregal authorities ever had the least intent of keeping that guarantee long term, they were set straight by the mother country once the treaty was circulated back home: “no faith is due to pledges made to traitors,” the crown directed. Surely in this perfidy there is also the implied regard of fear; had Cusco fallen to Tupac Amaru’s siege in 1781, the whole history of the New World could have changed. To leave unmolested the royal family of this martyred champion would have courted more danger than an empire ought.

So in March 1783, a Spanish sweep arrested not only Diego Cristobal Tupac Amaru but around 100 other members of his family and their households, pre-emptively on allegations of a fresh conspiracy. Though it was left to Diego to suffer the most extreme bodily fate, extirpation of his line was the intent, and other Tupac Amaru kin were dispossessed of property, deported, and forbidden the use of their costumes and titles as their subjects — Spain’s subjects — were forbidden their arms.

A ghastly account of Diego Cristobal’s sentence and execution is available in Spanish here: “to be dragged through the streets to the place of execution and there his flesh torn with hot pincers and then hanged by the neck until dead; afterwards to be dismembered and his head carried to Tungasuca, his arms to Lauramarca and Carabaya, his legs to Paucartambo and Calca, and the rest of his corpse set up in a pillory on the Caja del Agua, forfeiting all his property to the confiscation of His Majesty.”

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Bolivia,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Peru,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Royalty,Spain,Torture,Treason

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1381: John Ball, radical priest

1 comment July 15th, 2016 Headsman

Radical priest John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this St. Swithin’s Day in 1381 for the edification of the 14-year-old king whom he had very nearly deposed.

The wandering “hedge priest” Ball emerged out of St. Albans in the heart of the calamitous fourteenth centry spitting class leveling to rapt audiences of aggrieved peasants. He paid the price with at least three stints in prison. In 1366, an edict forbade his would-be flock from hearing his seditious theology demanding clerical poverty and (so complained the Archbishop of Canterbury) “putting about scandals concerning our own person, and those of other prelates and clergy.”*

But there was a reason that Ball’s illicit sermons could command such attention, and ordering him to shut up was mere whistling past the graveyard.

Ravaged by war and plague and heavy-handed wage suppression, England’s seething 99% broke into rebellion in June 1381.

Wat Tyler’s rebellion was one of the most spectacular risings England ever saw, and one of the first acts of peasants marching on London was to liberate Ball from ecclesiastical custody in Maidstone.

Ball preached to his rescuers at Blackheath, coining his great egalitarian slogan-couplet, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

They came breathtakingly close to accomplishing it.

For a few days that pregnant June the rebels controlled London, even putting to death the Archbishop of Canterbury and mounting his head on London Bridge — and Ball the “mad priest” stood in leadership alongside Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. Peasant rebellions are usually destined to end horribly; maybe this was one always was too, but it achieved very much more — terrifyingly much, to England’s ruling class — than previous other disturbances by the pitchfork crowd. By appearances, Wat Tyler and John Ball and the rest were within an ace of overturning England’s feudal hierarchy. Certainly they had the opportunity to slay young king Richard II, whose courage in command at this moment might have saved the crown to be taken from his descendants. During face-to-face negotiations between Richard and Wat Tyler himself, the rude peasant was murdered — and Richard acted smartly to bluff his villeins into marching away at a moment when they could easily have turned regicidal.

The beheaded movement was soon dislodged from London, and while promises of mercy (not always observed) did for the mass of rebels, those in its leadership could never hope for the same — least of all a career rabble-rouser. Ball was hunted down in hiding, and this time would be indulged no ecclesiastical detention: instead, his head replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s on London Bridge.

Wat Tyler’s name attaches to the rebellion, but for posterity it is the words of Ball, few as have survived for us, that describe its aims in something like its own voice.

Those words still make for a powerfully current critique in our own oligarchical age. When in 2015 a marker was unveiled commemorating the peasants’ rebellion, it was done on this anniversary of John Ball’s execution — and with a summons to equality he issued that has never yet been answered.

Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common. When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.

* Ball’s radicalism also helped turn English elites against the religious reforms sought by John Wycliffe, who was still alive during the 1381 peasants’ rebellion.

** In the early 20th century, socialist priest Conrad Noel had a marker with the same words hung at Thaxted Parish Church, where it can still be seen today.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1649: Three Banbury mutineers at Burford church

Add comment May 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1649, Oliver Cromwell had three leaders of his army’s working-class Levellers movement shot against the walls of Burford church.

The revolutionary army with which Cromwell had overthrown King Charles I came to a crisis in 1649 as the interests of senior officers and the class of landowners and merchants they hailed from clashed against those of the common soldiery.

This democratic and class-conscious Leveller movement has invited the sympathy of later radicals, and it would be hard to flatly call that attention anachronistic; Leveller William Walyn even anticipated Marx’s language in dismissing the Magna Carta as “that mess of pottage.”* This is an England whose capitalist shape is coming clearly into view.

Flint struck steel when the army’s Grandees laid a nasty Sophie’s choice on troops whose pay was deep in arrears: leave the army (forfeiting the back pay) or leave the country (to invade Ireland). Both options redounded to the advantage of the state and its moneyed interests, at the expense of the lower orders.

Army mutinies commenced immediately and the massive London procession that carried the executed Leveller Robert Lockyer to his grave proved the depth and danger of the public sentiment.

In early May of 1649, Colonel Scrope’s horse regiment — another of those offered the “opportunity” of serving in Ireland — followed suit, seizing the regimental colors, re-electing its own officers and marching out from Banbury across Salisbury plain to rendezvous with other discontented soldiers. In the words of one survivor,

the whole fabric of the Commonwealth fell into the grossest and vilest tyranny that ever Englishmen groaned under … which, with the considerations of the particular, most insufferable abuses and dissatisfactions put upon us, moved us to an unanimous refusal to go … till full satisfaction and security was given to us as Soldiers and Commoners, by a Council of our own free election.

Cromwell had a different satisfaction in mind.

Aided by an envoy sent to stall the rebels with a diversionary negotiation, Cromwell and Thomas Fairfax were able to surprise the 1,500 Levellers camped at Burford with a midnight attack the night of May 13-14. By morning, 340 soldiers were locked in Burford’s church as prisoners.

The tragic denouement of this Banbury mutiny was the execution of three soldiers, Cornet Thompson, Corporal Perkins, and Private Church. A plaque at the site still commemorates the event.


(cc) image from Kaihsu Tai.

On month’s end, Cromwell was certifying to Parliament that mutinous Levellers had all been pacified … and come August, he was ravaging Ireland as planned.

The Saturday nearest May 17th is marked each year in Burford as Levellers Day. (The next one as of this writing is Saturday, 20 May 2017.)

* The Biblical allusion was current in the culture; Cromwell invoked the same phrase a few years later when he dismissed the Rump Parliament.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers

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1940: Mikhail Koltsov, Soviet journalist

Add comment February 2nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1940, Soviet writer Mikhail Koltsov was shot at Lubyanka Prison.

Maybe the premier journalist of the early Bolshevik state, Koltsov (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) founded several magazines in the 1920s — including the still-extant Ogoniok.* His stylistic flair set him apart in an age oppressed by leaden, censorious prose. “If Pravda featured a readable piece in the 1930s, Koltsov was probably the author,” Donald Rayfield puts it in Stalin and His Hangmen. And the man’s charisma didn’t end with pen; he was the lover of (among others) the wife of security chief Nikolai Yezhov.

A convinced communist who had participated in the revolution, his reliability led Stalin to dispatch him to the Spanish Civil War — as a Pravda correspondent but also, of course, a Soviet agent. His role and his many fraught relationships are treated at some length in We Saw Spain Die; one officer of an international brigade wrote that Koltsov and his fellows seemed to breathe freer amid the wild danger of the front — “Here there was none of the slavish terror of the Moscow intellectual. Under the hail of Fascist bullets they forgot the bullet in the back of the neck, the secret executions of the GPU. Their talk was relaxed, uncharged with double meanings, un-Asiatic.”

Be that as it may, Koltsov as Kremlin vizier to a dirty war was on the other end of the death warrant often enough; he also cultivated Ernest Hemingway, and was rewarded with a thinly veiled role in For Whom The Bell Tolls (the character Karkov). His memoir Spanish Diary is a sort of team-Soviet counterpart to Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia.

But Koltsov lived ever in the shadow of Stalin’s terror, and to hear his friend, English correspondent Claud Cockburn tell it, Koltsov too knew it very well: a man for his time who could be a true believer by day and by night crack gallows humor at the creeping purges among friends. “I cannot say I was surprised” by his fall, Cockburn wrote when his onetime comrade disappeared. “And, oddly, I doubt if he was much surprised either. He had lived — and talked and joked — very dangerously, and he had absolutely no illusions so far as I know about the nature of the dangers … He would not, I thought, have been otherwise than satirically amused by some of the almost hysterically sentimental outcries which greeted his removal.” Though difficult to establish with certainty, it is thought that Stalin and Beria broadly suspected their Spanish Civil War emissaries of exposure to Trotskyite machinations, western spies, and other indulgences characteristic of men too far removed from that bullet in the back of the neck. Veterans of this conflict who retured to the USSR were a heavily purged demographic.**

Arrested as a Trotskyite at the end of 1938, he had a year to savor the terrors of interrogation and was made to denounce as western agents former friends like director Vsevolod Meyerhold — who was eventually executed on the same Feb. 1-2 night as Koltsov himself.

His brother, the cartoonist Boris Yefimov,† tried to inquire about him in March 1940 and was told that Koltsov had been interned in the gulag for ten years “without right of correspondence” … a secret police euphemism for a man who would in fact never correspond with anyone again.

* In 1923; this was a re-founding of a periodical dating to 1899, and the magazine naturally claims the earlier vintage for itself.

** Koltsov’s fall also corresponds to Moscow’s pre-World War II rapprochement with Berlin; one of the people his tortured denunciations helped bring down was the Jewish pro-western foreign minister Maxim Litvinov, for whom an anti-fascist alliance had been the policy. Litvinov was succeeded by Molotov — he of the Molotov-Ribbentrop non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany.

† Their surname by birth was Fridlyand; their father was a Jewish cobbler in Kiev.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Notably Survived By,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR

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