Posts filed under 'Guerrillas'

1957: Larbi Ben M’Hidi, in the Battle of Algiers

1 comment March 4th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1957, Algerian revolutionari Larbi Ben M’Hidi — more familiarly referred to as Si Larbi or Ben M’Hidi — was extrajudicially executed in French custody.

He was one of the founders of the militant nationalist National Liberation Front (FLN) and was a critical commander in the guerrilla war against French occupation, the Battle of Algiers. Small wonder he also features prominently in the cinematic masterpiece of the same name, where he and his opposite number, the French Col. Mathieu, are bracingly clear-eyed as to their respective sides’ necessary forms of terror.

In this scene,* for instance, the captured Ben M’Hidi is asked by a journalist whether it is not cowardly to have women kill people with bombs hidden in their baskets.

“It’s it even more cowardly to attack defenseless villages with napalm bombs that kill many thousands of times more?” the shackled M’Hidi replies. “Obviously, planes would make things easier for us. Give us your bombers, sir, and you can have our baskets.”

This exchange adapts a conversation that “Col. Mathieu’s” real-life model, Marcel Bigeard, reportedly had with his prisoner over dinner.

Bigeard respected Ben M’Hidi too much to torture him but the French brass was not so sanguine — perceiving that the Algerian would present a great danger to the occupation as a political prisoner. This was a dirty war, and men like Ben M’Hidi met dirty fates.

Major Paul Aussaresses,** the officer eventually tasked with dispatching the revolutionary, described how it happened in his The Battle of the Casbah: Terrorism and Counterterrorism in Algeria 1955-1957.

Ben M’Hidi didn’t want to cooperate and Bigeard knew full well what the consequences of such a refusal would be … would he have talked under torture? We knew that Ben M’Hidi was responsible for most of the attacks and that he deserved the gallows ten times over, yet it wasn’t absolutely certain that he would be found guilty in court.

On March 3, 1957, [General Jacques] Massu and I discussed the problem in the presence of [Massu’s second-in-command Roger] Trinquier. We agreed that a trial of Ben M’Hidi was not a good idea. There would have been international repercussions …

“So what do you think?” asked Massu.

“I don’t know why Ben M’Hidi should get preferential treatment compared to the other rebels. When it comes down to terrorism the leaders don’t impress me any more favorably than their underlings. We’ve already executed many poor devils who were carrying out this guy’s orders and here we are hesitating for three weeks just to find out what we’re going to do about him!”

“I agree with you completely, but Ben M’Hidi is not just some cipher who will be quickly forgotten. We can’t just make him simply disappear into thin air.”

“There’s no way we can hand him over to the police either. They claim they’ll give him the third degree to make him talk but I’m convinced he won’t say a word. If there were to be a trial and he hasn’t confessed, he could actually walk away free, along with the entire FLN cadre. So let me take care of him before he becomes a fugitive, which is bound to happen if we keep on hesitating.”

“Very well, go ahead and take care of him,” answered Massu with a sigh. “Do the best you can. I’ll cover you.”

I understood that Massu already had the government’s approval to proceed.

I picked up Ben M’Hidi the following night at El-Biar. Bigeard made sure he was somewhere else because he had been told ahead of time that I was coming to take the prisoner away. I came with a few Jeeps and a Dodge pick-up. There were about a dozen men from my first squad, all of them armed to the teeth. Captain Allaire was in charge and had a little combat group lined up and presenting arms. I asked him to go get Ben M’Hidi and hand him over to me.

“Present arms!” ordered Allaire, when Ben M’Hidi, who had just been awakened, was escorted out of the building.

To my amazement the paratroopers of the 3rd RPC gave the defeated FLN leader his final honors. It was Bigeard in effect paying his respects to a man who had become his friend. This spectacular and somewhat useless demonstration didn’t make my job any easier. Obviously at that instant Ben M’Hidi fully understood what was in store for him. I quickly shoved him into the Dodge. We traveled very fast since an ambush to free him was always a possibility. I gave very strict orders to the NCO guard sitting next to the FLN leader:

“If we’re ambushed, you shoot him immediately, even if we come out unharmed. Make sure you knock him off without hesitating!”

We stopped at an isolated farm that was occupied by the commando unit belonging to my regiment and located about twenty kilometers south of Algiers, on the left off the main road. A pied-noir had placed the farm at our disposal. It was a modest building and the living quarters were on the ground floor. My second team was waiting for us there.

The commando unit of the 1st RCP included about twenty men, some of whom were draftees, but all of them were completely reliable. Captain Allard, nicknamed Tatave, who was very much devoted to me, was in charge. I had told him what was going on and he had been briefed. I told him to have his men set up in a corner of the room where Ben M’Hidi would be placed. The farm was messy and they had to move a few bales of hay around and sweep the floor. While this was taking place the prisoner was kept isolated in another room, which had been prepared. One of my men was standing guard at the door.

Then I entered with one of the soldiers and together we grabbed Ben M’Hidi and hanged him by the neck to make it look like suicide. Once I was sure he was dead, I immediately had him taken down and brought the body to the hospital. Following my orders, the NCO who was driving left the engine running while the car was parked, in order to be able to drive off at top speed without volunteering any explanations as soon as the emergency room doctor appeared. It was about midnight.

I immediately phoned Massu.

“General, Ben M’Hidi has just committed suicide. His body is at the hospital. I will bring you my report tomorrow.”

Massu grunted and hung up the phone. He knew full well that my report had been ready since early afternoon, just to make sure. Judge [Jean] Berard was the first one to read it. It described in detail the suicide that was to take place the next night. Berard was impressed:

“Well, this is very good! You know, it does make sense!”

Actually the report didn’t make sense for very long. Massu called me to his office a few days later.

“Aussaresses, I’m in the shit. District Attorney [Jean] Reliquet [a torture foe -ed.] has called me in.”

“What? He dared summon you!”

“Yes, to discuss the suicide of Ben M’Hidi.”

“But that’s an outrageous thing to do! Because of your position you shouldn’t have to answer the summons. I’ll go, since I’m your representative to the legal authorities.”

I therefore paid a visit to the judge’s office.

“Mr. District Attorney, I am here to represent General Massu. Because of my position I can discuss the circumstances of Ben M’Hidi’s death. I’m also the author fo the report that you’ve seen.”

The district attorney was absolutely enraged.

“Yes, of course! Let’s discuss your report! What you state in it is purely circumstantial. And only circumstantial! There’s no proof. Can you military types offer any proof at all?”

“I can offer our good faith.”

I think that had I slapped Reliquet across the face it would have had less of an impact than that answer.

“Your good faith!” he answered, choking on the words. “Your good faith as soldiers. Soldiers who are suddenly being candid?”

I put my beret back on, saluted him, clicking my heels, and walked out of the room.

We never heard from the district attorney again after that. The death of Ben M’Hidi was a decisive blow to the FLN in Algiers. The attacks died down and the bulk of the rebels began retreating toward the Atlas Mountains near Blida.

We used the farmhouse again where Ben M’Hidi had been executed. I had the men dig a long ditch and some twenty bodies, including that of a woman, were buried there.

The French military’s success by 1957 in the Battle of Algiers did not clinch its fight to retain Algeria — which attained its independence in 1962, to the horror of the far right. But it did put the army in such a vaunting position vis-a-vis the civilian authorities — one can see it in Aussaresses’s disdainful treatment of Reliquet — that the generals would author a 1958 coup led by Gen. Massu himself which called Charles de Gaulle out of retirement and initiated France’s Fifth (and current) Republic.

Larbi Ben M’Hidi’s name today graces one of the main thoroughfares of Algiers.

* The full film is a must-watch and can often be searched up in the usual places. This press interrogation occurs about 88 minutes in … closely followed by a scene of a spokeman announcing that M’Hidi “hanged himself” and Col. Mathieu allowing that he “appreciated the moral fiber, courage and commitment of Ben M’Hidi to his own ideals. Notwithstanding the great danger he represented, I pay tribute to his memory.” Game recognizes game.

** Eventually, General Paul Aussaresses … although he’d be stripped of this rank (and of his Legion of Honor) for celebrating the use of torture in Algeria in The Battle of the Casbah.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Algeria,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Wartime Executions

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1901: Willie Louw, Boer commando

Add comment November 23rd, 2017 Headsman

Field-Cornet Willie Louw, a guerrilla in the Second Boer War, was shot by the British on this date in 1901.

A nephew to the Scots-descended Dutch reform minister Andrew Murray, William Hofmeyer Louw was a Colesberg farmer when that area — part of the British Cape Colony — was invaded by guerrillas from the neighboring independent Boer states.

Questions of the right allegiance out on the frontiers of empire were the very heart of the conflict. Louw sought advice from a judge, who advised him that as the Boer Republics claimed his district, he could join them on commando with a clear conscience.

British law did not see it the same way; Louw pleaded guilty to the consequent treason charge, putting himself on the mercy of a tribunal which was more keen on setting examples. The socialist politician (and future Prime Minister) Ramsay MacDonald, who visited South Africa in 1902, complained that “Willie Louw has been shot upon the verdict of a court which did not understand the first elements of justice and had not the faintest idea when a statement was proved.”

A letter from Willie’s sister to her parents the following morning, published that Christmas in the Manchester Guardian, detailed the commando’s peacable frame of mind as he faced in his last hours his “short journey to the long home.” (via To Love One’s Enemies: The work and life of Emily Hobhouse compiled from letters and writings, newspaper cuttings and official documents)

When we got home we heard that a sentence was to be promulgated on the market square at 11.30. All were eager to know who the prisoner was and we watched to see the procession pass. Bravely like a man he walked, erect with firm and steady step, his face ruddy and beautiful. It took a very few minutes to read the sentence and when he walked back the colour had not left his face nor the vigor his form — he was unchanged.

At about 2 o’clock we were there (at the goal) and found him quietly putting a few little things he had used together to be borne home on a tray by Boezak. The tray away, I put my arms around the strong neck while he bent over me and with his head on my shoulder I said, ‘Als ging ik ook dal der schaduz des doods ik sal geen kwaad vreezen, want Zyt met my, U stock en U staf die vertroosten my.’ (When I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil, for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff comfort me.) We then sat down, my husband at his right side and I at his left. All that was spoken by him bore unspeakably sure evidence of his trust in Jesus’ merit, of his preparedness to meet his God, of his hope of glory. He told us how thankful he was that he had twenty-nine days to prepare for this — how he had not been alone — how he had been strengthened, wonderfully strengthened … he was so sorry for you Dear Father and Mother and for George and then for us all — but we were to try and be brave and bear this. He had prayed to God to strengthen us and poor cousin Hanni as well.

Willie’s own last letter to his mother struck a similarly pious note (this via Innocent Blood: Executions During the Anglo-Boer War)

Saturday 23/11/1901

My dearest Mother,

I am returning your last letter to you because I am departing to a better world where there is no grief and sorrow. It is stipulated that I will depart this afternoon. It is God’s sacred will. He cannot make mistakes. May He always be close to you and dearest Daddy and all our loved ones. May He strengthen you all. Yes, God has promised me that he will strengthen you all, now there is nothing, virtually nothing, that worries me or will hold me back. Oh, I wish I could have done more work for Him. What value there is in a single soul. God, our Father, has allowed it all for the glory and honour of His name. Adieu! Until we meet again my own, dearest Mother.

Willie

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,South Africa,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1960: Tony Zarba, anti-Castro raider

Add comment October 13th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1960, American adventurer Anthony “Tony” Zarba was shot after his capture in an ill-fated raid on Fidel Castro’s Cuba.

The Somerville, Mass. native had been shaken like many U.S. citizens by the recent Cuban Revolution; antagonism toward Castro featured prominently in the tight Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign that was nearing its climax during the events of this post, the backdrop for the world’s coming brush with nuclear apocalypse. Confrontation of some kind seemed a foregone conclusion, and in a tradition as old as filibustering, a private clique formed in the U.S. with the intention of hastening the day.

“Today I leave for the Cuban hills. I am going to fight against communism that has come so close to our American shores,” Zarba wrote a friend before launching in a PT boat from Miami with three other Americans, 22 Cuban exiles, and a stockpile of black market weapons that September of 1960.

All this could have been prevented by our government. Now the time has come when all this can be fixed only one way — fighting.

When my country is daily insulted and abused by the Commies of Cuba, I think that this is the opportunity I missed when I could not qualify physically as a U. S. soldier because of my asthma.

But where my generation is falling for its lack of political maturity and comprehension, I am going to do my duty regardless of any foolish considerations about legality, neutrality and other technicalities of which the diabolic Communist takes so much advantage …

I have confidence that God would give me the necessary strength and courage to die with honor and pride if this were necessary in the hills or in front of a Red firing squad.

I am sure many others will follow in my steps.

The intent of this operation was to rally anti-Castro disaffection believed to be burgeoning in Cuba and escape to the Sierra Maestra to build a guerrilla movement like Castro and Che had done in their own day.

But they were surprised by government soldiers shortly after their landing at Nibujon and shattered the foray right there on the beach, a preview of the more (in)famous Washington-backed Bay of Pigs disaster six months hence. Zabra was captured on the beach with a number of Cubans, still wet with sea salt from wading their ammunition ashore. Two other Americans, Allen Dale Thompson and Robert Fuller, escaped for the moment but would also be captured within days; they followed Zabra to the firing posts on Oct. 15. (Some others, including the fourth American, were aboard a fishing launch when the Cubans arrived and fled to open seas.)

Boats and guns don’t quite grow on trees even in Florida, so fiascos like this require moneymen to orchestrate the junction of enthusiasts and their Red firing squads. This particular operation was underwritten by former Communist turned Batista henchman Rolando Masferrer, a prominent mafioso whose 1960s pastime was extorting fellow Cuban exiles and plotting Castro’s assassination. (Castro put a price on Masferrer’s head in return.)

An associate of Santo Trafficante, Masferrer enjoys bit roles in some John F. Kennedy assassination theories. His underworld murder in 1975 has done nothing to abate them.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cuba,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,USA

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1629: Giorgi Saakadze

Add comment October 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Larger-than-life Georgian warrior Giorgi Saakadze was put to death in Aleppo on this date in 1629.

Through friendship with the royal family and talent on the battlefield, (English Wikipedia entry | Georgian), Saakadze had risen from the petty nobility to become one of the leading figures in the Kingdom of Kartli (centered on the city of Tbilisi, Georgia’s present-day capital). He even married his sister to the king himself.

Kartli was a minor principality under the sway of the adjacent Persian Safavids but that doesn’t mean they were thrilled about the idea. Saakadze would embark on a treacherous (in both senses) career when he was accused by rival Georgian lords of Persian subterfuge, and had to flee to Persia to a chorus of told-you-sos.

In this Benedict Arnold posture, Saakadze would then help direct the campaign that pacified Georgia for the Persians, and deposed the Georgian king.* Through Persian arms he became the de facto ruler of his prostrated homeland, and you’d be forgiven for wondering how that sort of behavior has earned him a monumental equestrian statue dominating a Tbilisi city square named to his honor.

Well, Saakadze redeemed his reputation and then some by turning coat on a massive Persian invasion dispatched to put down another Georgian rebellion in the 1620s, crippling the operation while the former satrap turned guerrilla. Savvy empires know how to play the divide-and-conquer game, however, and before you knew it they had rival Georgian factions literally at one another’s throats. Saakadze had to flee again — this time, he headed west to the Ottomans.

The wheel of fortune that had spun so dizzyingly for Saakadze time after time had one more revolution yet in store. Our fugitive/refugee now carried Turkish arms into the field, against the Persians and with his customary aptitude, but a figure of Saakadze’s malleable allegiances was always at risk of being damned a traitor by some palace enemy. That’s exactly what happened in 1629.

What to make of such a figure? Saakadze did not want for daring, and his defections had not been so piratical and opportunistic as a Alcibiades — thus, even by the end of the 17th century, this larger-than-life adventurer was celebrated in verse with an aggrandizement upon his original Georgian office: the “Grand Mouravi“. It was not long before he had entered Georgians’ pantheon of patriotic heroes.

Saakadze’s legend really took off in the 20th century, aided by that inescapable scion of Georgia, Joseph Stalin. The man was always up for reappropriating a hero out of modernity’s nascence into a nation-galvanizing icon for the Soviet state.

Packaging Saakadze as a martyr to a backwards time of squabbling princes, Stalin commissioned a film that centers its subject as a Georgian hero — which was a sentiment needed when Giorgi Saakadze was released in 1943 because the Wehrmacht was also using the man’s name to brand a battalion of Georgian recruits.

* The martyr-king Luarsab was no longer family for Saakadze, having put aside Saakadze’s sister with the family’s disgrace.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Georgia,Guerrillas,History,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Separatists,Soldiers,Syria

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1942: Tom Williams, IRA martyr

1 comment September 2nd, 2017 Headsman

Irish revolutionary Tom Williams was hanged at Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol on this date in 1942.

A plaque at 46 Bombay Street in Belfast marks the home Tom Williams shared with his grandmother.

The 19-year-old Belfast Catholic had been the chief of a six-man Irish Republican Army team that mounted an Easter Sunday attack intended to divert Northern Ireland’s Royal Ulster Constabulary from preventing Republican marches to commemorate the Easter Rising. The attack killed an RUC officer, and all six IRA men were arrested and sentenced to death.

As the acknowledged leader, Williams alone paid that forfeit; the five others all had their sentences commuted. (Notably, their number included 21-year-old Joe Cahill, who was destined for an illustrious career in the movement; he would go on to co-found the Provisional IRA in 1969, and to become a prominent exponent of the peace process in the 1990s.)

“Tom Williams walked to that scaffold without a tremor in his body. The only people who were shaking were us and the hangman,” his priest said later that day. “I’ve one other thing to say to you. Don’t pray for Tom Williams, pray to him, for at this moment Tom is a saint in heaven.”

That’s about the size of Williams’s place in the Republican memory. After the prison was closed, Williams was reburied with honors (Gerry Adams attended) in 2000. He’s commemorated in a ballad.

Tom Williams (Irish republican) from REBELS OF IRELAND on Vimeo.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Ireland,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Soldiers,Terrorists

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1946: Draza Mihailovic, Chetnik commander

Add comment July 17th, 2017 Headsman

I wanted much; I began much; but the gale of the world carried away me and my work.

-Draža Mihailovic, last statement to the court

On this date in 1946, Serbian Chetnik commander Draža Mihailovic was shot in Belgrade as a World War II traitor — a verdict that remains controversial to this day.

A colonel* in the Royal Yugoslav Army, Mihailovic escaped Germany’s initial invasion into the mountainous Balkan interior with a few dozen comrades who became the nucleus of a Serbian guerrilla movement.

These royalist Chetniks made a rivalrous opposite number to Josip Tito’s fellow guerrillas, the Communist partizans; it is easy enough to see from Mihailovic’s place in these very pages how matters settled in the end. From the first months of occupation in 1941, Chetniks and Partisans alike struck Axis occupation forces who had carved up Yugoslavia, even coordinating efforts in spite of their vast ideological chasm.

But politics didn’t stop at the border forever.

As the war progressed, the Chetniks gradually found terms with the occupiers, with Mihailovic at an October 1941 meeting dramatically rejecting Tito’s proposed common front. For the Chetniks, the leftist and polyglot Partisans who meant to rule the postwar Yugoslavia were the first enemy, “a motley collection of rascals,” in Mihailovic’s words — consisting of “Jews, Croats, Dalmatians, Bulgarians, Turks, Magyars, and all other nations of the world.”

Officially, tactical partnerships with the Germans and Italians were strictly opportunistic, not a buy-in on fascism — or they denoted a calculation (and Mihailovic’s limitless time-biding greatly aggravated the Allies while the fur was flying) to cautiously preserve his movement’s strength by avoiding engagement with an overwhelming enemy. In practice this policy drove the movement towards near-quisling status, with its major actions being undertaken against other resistance fighters on team partizan,** or to purge non-Serbs from this or that locale, even accepting German and especially Italian subsidies to do it.† Mihailovic’s enemies, he said in 1943, numbered “the Ustashi, the Partisans, the Croats and the Moslems” and “when he had dealt with these, he would turn to the Germans and the Italians.” Priorities are as priorities do.

For obvious reasons this behavior contrasts unfavorably with the Partisans’ militant “death to fascism, freedom to the people” line, and this latter movement’s ferocity in resistance saw it outstrip the Chetniks and seize the initiative for the postwar order. To a far greater extent than most other guerrillas of the bloodlands, the Partisans drove their own homelands’ liberation and left Tito master of a postwar Yugoslavia never occupied by the Red Army.

Mihailovic’s fall mirrored Tito’s rise. The Chetnik commander would be taken months after the war’s end, hiding out Saddam-like in a foxhole on the Bosnian marches. There could be no question of his fate.

Mihailovic and other Chetniks faced a predictably slanted trial for war crimes against Partisans and civilians, culminating in conviction on July 15, 1946 … two days before he faced the guns, with all of eight hours granted him to make his futile appeal. While it’s certain that the charges against him were maximized for the occasion, Mihailovic’s defense citing ignorance of and incapacity to control various units’ local atrocities is also not calculated to flatter a rebel general.


Mihailovic on trial.

Mihailovich was shot along with eight others:

  • Draghi Yovanovich, chief of the Belgrade police during the German occupation;
  • Milan Gushich and Radoslav Radich, Mihailovich aides;
  • Velibor Yonich, Tanasje Dinich, and Djure Dokich, ministers in the Serbian puppet government;
  • and, General Kosta Mushicki and a deputy named Paolovich.

In 2015, a Serbian court controversially reversed Mihailovic’s conviction.

* He’d be promoted to Brigadier General during the war years.

** World sport fanciers surely know that there is a literal team Partizan, founded as soon as World War II ended and one of the major clubs in Serbia ever since (in football, basketball, and 24 other sports). Here they are stealing the Adriatic League hoops championship from Cibona Zagreb on a full-court heave in 2010:

† This last-refuge-of-scoundrels legacy was unpleasantly recapitulated by some Serbian militias assuming the Chetnik brand during the ethnic wars attending Yugoslavia’s crackup in the 1990s. The term is basically a fighting word in certain quarters of the Balkans.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Serbia,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,War Crimes,Yugoslavia

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1864: Jose Maria Chavez Alonso, governor of Aguascalientes

1 comment April 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the French executed the governor of Aguascalientes.

Elected to the post during early months of the unfolding French intervention in Mexico, Jose Maria Chavez Alonso (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was deposed by the invaders in December 1863 — to be succeeded by a different Chavez who met an equally violent fate.

Alonso formed a popular militia and continued a short-lived resistance against the French but was captured early in 1864, and although this was still some months before the dirty war’s notorious “Black Decree” the French determined to make an example of him.

Alonso aside, the Mexican adventure proved a right catastrophe for France and its adherents.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Execution,France,Guerrillas,History,Mexico,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1807: Ephraim Blackburn, low roller

Add comment November 11th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1807, a throw of the dice noosed Ephraim Blackburn.

The son of a Pennsylvanian who served in George Washington’s army, Blackburn sought his own martial adventure by joining the expedition of Louisiana-Mexico border trader Philip Nolan in 1801.

Nolan had spent the 1790s living and trading along the frontier of Mexico and (Spanish, until 1800) Louisiana. Nolan worked in a legal twilight, earning the connivance of some Mexican officials and the hostility of others; perhaps no Anglo was better-acquainted with Texas.

By 1800 he was barred from the territory but assembled a coterie of 30-plus armed men and ventured into Texas once agan on an apparent filibustering operation seeking to carve out control of some piece of Texas. Our man Ephraim Blackburn was among these daring souls, whose wooden palisade somewhere near the Brazos River was quickly overwhelmed by a Mexican attack.

Nolan died in the battle, leading the remainder of his men to surrender. From there they would embark on a strange years-long legal road, their numbers continually winnowed by escapes. Ordinarily when one is prosecuted as a foreign invader, one is not permitted to have the liberty of the city or to go into business, but that is exactly what occurred with the Nolan men.

One of their number, Peter Ellis Bean, is known to have survived his incarceration; he escaped and fought for Father Miguel Hidalgo‘s Mexican revolutionaries against Spain, returned to the United States in 1818, then re-settled in post-independence Mexico. Bean conferred on posterity a memoir recalling that during their imprisonment,*

Some of my companions got leave of the general to go to other towns to live, but I thought I would find out some way of making something. I gave myself out as a hatter. There was a gentleman who trusted me for whatever was necessary to carry on that business. I employed two Spanish hatters to work with me, for, in fact, I was no hatter at all. In about six months I had so raised my name, that no one would purchase hats except of the American. By this means I got a number of journeymen to work with me. I was clear of debt, and making from fifty to sixty dollars per week.

All this entrepreneurialism was unfolding while capital case meandered with no great urgency among Spanish courts. One judge recommended the prisoners’ outright release in 1804; by the time the message had been shipped across the Atlantic and back, it was 1807, and the judge had died. The crown’s reversal horrifyingly required the death of one in every five of the invaders — although since deaths and escapes had now reduced their ranks to just nine, the local authorities mercifully rounded the figure down to one.

On the 9th of November, the nine remaining prisoners were gathered in a Chihuahua barracks and made aware of their situation. They agreed among themselves to cast dice in order of seniority — low roll hangs.**

Blackburn was the oldest, and the first to roll. He threw a 3 and 1. Bean narrates, beginning with the frighteningly mysterious arrival of confessional priests the night before the survival lottery:

all our conversation that night was in view of our being put to death. I told them that we should trust to fate, and not fret ourselves about what we could not remedy. One of them said the bravest would be cast down to see his open grave before him. “But,” said I, “if you find no way to escape that grave, is it not better to march up to it like a man, than to be dragged to it like one dead? It is enough for them to drag me to it when life is gone. The most cowardly, where under sentence of death, have marched up with great bravery. And, as for myself, if I must die, I mean not to disgrace my country.” The reason I talked so was that I did not believe they would put us to death.

Soon the next morning the priests returned, and David Fero asked them if we were to be put to death. They said they did not know — perhaps some might be. I then began to conclude it would be me, and all my companions thought the same thing. I, however, said nothing; for, as I had before talked of valor in such cases, it became necessary for me to support that character. The priests said we must confess all our sins to them, and we should be forgiven. As for myself, I had been taught that God knew all my crimes and it was not worth while to relate them to the parsons. But some of my companions began to confess, and had their sins forgiven. When they asked me, I told them I must have four or five days to recollect all my sins — that they were so many, it was doubtful whether I could ever remember them all. The parsons advised me to begin, and God would enlighten me, and help me to remember them. I told them I could not that day, but perhaps by the next day I could remember some things. They then left us. All that day the talk among us was as to who it would be. I told them, I supposed, as I was the worst, it would be me; and, as my friend Tony Waters had been put in with us to share our fate, I thought, as he had broken open my letter, that if the thing went according to justice, and they hung the worst man, it must be him, for he was, without doubt, the greatest villain and ought to have been dead some years ago. Waters sighed, but said nothing. The next day the parsons came again, and brought with them a colonel, who read to us the king’s order — which was, that every fifth man was to be hung, for firing on the king’s troops. But, as some were dead, there were but nine of us, and, out of the nine, but one had to die. This was to be decided by throwing dice on the head of a drum. Whoever threw lowest, was to be executed. It was then agreed that the oldest must throw first. I was the youngest, and had to throw last. The first was blindfolded, and two dice put in a glass tumbler. He was led to the drum which was put in the room, and there cast the dice on the head of the drum. And so we went up, one by one, to cast the awful throw of life or death. All of my companions, except one, threw high: he threw four. As I was the last, all his hopes were that I should throw lower than he. As for my part, I was indifferent about it, for I had resigned myself to fortune. I took the glass in my hand, and gained the prize of life, for I threw five.

After two days to prepare himself, Blackburn hanged on Chihuahua’s Plaza de los Urangas. The remaining prisoners were scattered to different prisons for many years to come; among the survivors, only Bean is known to have set eyes on his native soil again.

* On the expedition that would staple his name to mainland America’s highest peak, Zebulon Pike was briefly captured by the Mexicans and taken to Chihuahua, where he met some of the Nolan gang prisoners.

** Both the random selection and its circumstances — punishing Anglo adventurers — strongly foreshadow Mexico’s later Black Bean Lottery.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Mexico,Public Executions,Soldiers,Spain,Terrorists,Texas,USA

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1968: Harun Thohir and Usman Janatin, for the MacDonald House bombing

Add comment October 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1968, Indonesian Lance Corporal Harun Thohir and Sgt. Usman Janatin were hanged in Singapore for bombing the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank three years earlier.

Aptly, such confrontational behavior took place during the era of Konfrontasi, a running fight between Indonesia — feeling its oats as a regional power — and the British straits possessions that had just recently been amalgamated (to Indonesia’s irritation) into the new country Malaysia.

This wasn’t a “war” full of set-piece battles: think commando raids and jungle skirmishing instead. Initially confined to the island of Borneo of which Indonesia occupied three-quarters and coveted the remainder, the fight provocatively spilled to the “homeland” Malay Peninsula itself, including a number of saboteur bombings concentrated in Singapore — which was still a part of Malaysia in the early 1960s.

The most notorious and destructive of these was conducted on March 10, 1965, by our men Harun Thohir and Usman Janatir along with a third commando named Gani bin Arup. Tasked with bombing an electric station, they instead packed 12 kg of nitroglycerin into a bank — an iconic landmark that was at the time the tallest in its vicinity. The MacDonald House bombing killed three civilians and injured 133 more.

Gani bin Arup escaped successfully, but Janatin and Thohir suffered a motorboat breakdown and were apprehended. By the time their execution date arrived, a few things had changed: Singapore itself had been expelled from Malaysia to become an independent city-state; and, the Konfrontasi era had been dialed back with the deposition of Indonesian president Sukarno.

But the hanging still stayed on, and feelings ran understandably high for both the former antagonists.

The jurisdictional issue of most moment for the bombers was not the identity of the offended state, but their contention that they were regular armed forces members just following their orders and entitled to prisoner of war status. Jakarta was indignant at Singaporean courts’ dismissal of this angle; Singapore, well, it didn’t want to take a soft line on terrorists blowing up banks.


Headline in the Oct. 18, 1968 London Times, reporting “a crowd of 10,000 people who joined the procession to the war heroes’ cemetery here [Jakarta] carried banners proclaiming: ‘Declare total war on Singapore’, ‘Annihilate Singapore’, and ‘Hang Lee Kuan Yew‘.”

As is so often the case, one man’s terrorists are often another’s freedom fighters: the hanged marines remain tday official national heroes in Indonesia, and in 2014 the navy created a diplomatic incident with Singapore by christening a Bung Tomo-class corvette the KRI Usman-Harun.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Indonesia,Malaysia,Martyrs,Murder,Ripped from the Headlines,Singapore,Soldiers,Terrorists

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1706: Matthias Kraus, Bavarian rebel

Add comment March 17th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1706, Bavarian butcher Matthias Kraus was beheaded and quartered for an anti-Austrian rebellion.

This commoner was the victim at several orders’ remove of distant imperial politics; as such, he will enter this story only as a coda. Instead, we begin in the 1690s, in Spain, with the approaching death of the childless Spanish king Charles II.

The question of who would succeed Charles presented European diplomats the stickiest of wickets: there were rival claims that augured civil war, which was bad enough, but such a war’s potential winners could themselves be scions of the French Bourbons or the Austrian Habsburgs … which meant that Spain’s world empire could become conjoined with that of another great European power and unbalance everything.

Now, it just so happened that the Elector of Bavaria Maximilian II Emanuel had a ball in this game — because his marriage to a Habsburg princess had produced a kid who could plausibly receive the throne, Joseph Ferdinand of Bavaria. (The mom died in 1692, but had she been alive, she would have stood to inherit Charles II’s throne.)

For a while this whelp looked like the answer the continent’s schemers were searching for, since neither the state of Bavaria nor his father’s House of Wittelsbach was already a great power — and thus, they could be elevated without creating a new hegemon. But in 1699, months after the infirm Charles had designated the little boy “my legitimate successor in all my kingdoms, states and dominions,” Joseph Ferdinand too dropped dead.

The boy was only seven years old — but he had lived long enough to whet his father’s appetite for a more substantial patrimony. When Charles II finally died in 1700 with the inheritance situation still unresolved, Max Emanuel entered the resulting continental war — the War of Spanish Succession — allying himself with France with the intent of supplanting the Habsburg dynasty on the Austrian throne.

This was a bold gambit to be sure but in the war’s earliest years it looked like it might really work. The Elector of Bavaria parlayed his strong position on the Danube (and ample French support) into a menacing thrust into Austria that threatened to capture Vienna. For the Wittelsbachs, this would mean promotion to a higher plane of dynastic inbreeding; for France, it would mean a lethal blow to the rival Austrian-English-Dutch “Grand Alliance”.

But things went pear-shaped in 1704.

Marlborough mounted a famous march to Austria’s rescue and trounced the Bourbons and Bavarians at the Battle of Blenheim, completely reversing the tide of events. Bavaria now came under Austrian occupation, as Max Emanuel hightailed it to the Low Countries.

All this statecraft brings us as a postscript the unhappy fate of our butcher, Herr Kraus.

The Austrian occupation of Bavaria — complete with punishing wartime levies — triggered in 1705 a peasants’ revolt grandly titled the Bavarian People’s Uprising. Matthias Kraus was a leader in this rising.


Matthias Kraus in Kelheim (Via)

Like the Wittelsbach pretension writ small, Kraus was intrepid but doomed. Having seized the town of Kelheim with a force of 200 or so, he held it for just five days. Austrian forces appearing at the gate negotiated for a peaceful surrender of the city, but as soon as they got the gates open they ran amok in a general massacre.

Kraus himself, interrogated under torture in Ingolstadt, was returned to Kelheim for public execution — his body’s quarters to be mounted around the city as a warning.


Detail view (click for a full image) of an Austrian leaflet publicizing the fate of the rebellious Kraus.

His martyrdom at the hands of a foreign occupation has stood Kraus in good stead in posterity. There is a Matthias-Kraus-Gasse in Kelheim, as well as a fountain memorial put up to celebrate the 1905 bicentennial of his his fleeting moment of heroism.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Austria,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,Habsburg Realm,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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