Posts filed under 'Arson'

1813: Adriana Bouwman, guillotined at The Hague

Add comment May 1st, 2019 Headsman

The young maid Adriana Bouwman was guillotined on this date in 1813 for theft and arson; it was the second and last use of that notorious machine in The Hague, during the three years that the Netherlands was directly incorporated into Napoleon’s First Empire.

Arijaantje Apersdr Bouman was condemned for robbing and torching a farmhouse where she worked as a domestic. She was four months shy of her 20th birthday when beheaded.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Netherlands,Public Executions,Theft,Women

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1988: Elina Zlatanova, the last woman executed in Bulgaria

1 comment March 8th, 2019 Richard Clark

(Thanks to Richard Clark of Capital Punishment U.K. for the guest post, a reprint of an article originally published on that site with some explanatory links added by Executed Today. CapitalPunishmentUK.org features a trove of research and feature articles on the death penalty in England and elsewhere. -ed.)


With special thanks to Andrey for contributing this fascinating insight into Bulgarian justice during the Communist era. -RC

In the early hours of March 8th, 1988 in the town cemetery of Sliven in Southeast Bulgaria, “Elina Zlatanova” was executed by a single handgun shot to the back of the head for the murder of her two young sons. Ironically, the execution fell on International Women’s Day and Mother’s Day — a semi-official and universally celebrated holiday in Bulgaria. The symbolism was presumably not lost on the authorities

Background.

We do not know the actual (birth) name of the woman executed on this day. Elina Zlatanova was the name given to her in the mid-1980s by the Communist authorities as a part of the so-called “Revival Process” — the forceful assimilation of Bulgaria’s Turkish minority. She was a midwife and her husband, “Martin Zlatanov” (another victim of the forced renaming), was a doctor in the hospital of Kardzhali, a town of 60,000 with an ethnically Turkish majority.

Her father was a onetime Member of Parliament (this was not as impressive as it may sound — most of the 400 members of the Communist rubberstamp parliament were chosen pretty much at random from loyal party cadres and, of course, they were the only candidates on the ballot). Her family was well respected in the city.

And her marriage was an unmitigated disaster. Zlatanova had to wait hand and foot on her husband and his unmarried brother, was not allowed to leave the house except for work or to go to the nearest shop and was denied contact with her family. The last straw probably came when she heard rumours that her husband had a mistress. These rumours were substantiated when, three months after the murder, he moved back into the apartment where his children died with his mistress and eventually married her, emigrating to Turkey where they apparently live to this day.

The crime.

On January 19th 1986, “Midwives Day” in Bulgaria, Elina expected to be taken to a social function by her husband, but instead he came in late and didn’t even acknowledge her. After he left for work the next morning (20.01.1986), she took a 20-litre can of diesel fuel (essential because of frequent power outages), poured it all over the apartment and set it on fire. Her 10-month-old son, Elin, was asphyxiated in his crib; his older brother Neven (age 4), tried to escape and Elina stabbed him with a kitchen knife. Her intention, apparently, was to also perish in the fire, but when the flames got too close, she got out of the blazing apartment.

Trial.

At first Elina claimed that an unknown man in blue work coveralls had broken in and set the place on fire, but soon afterwards the stab wounds on the older boy’s body were found and she made a full confession (Bulgarian police at the time were rather too good at extracting confessions, but there is next to no doubt about the circumstances of this case).

At the trial she pleaded guilty to all counts and reportedly fainted any time the boys were mentioned. Her lawyer, the late Reni Tzanova, attempted a defence of insanity and, given Elina’s behaviour in and out of court during the trial, it came as a shock when she was found to have been fully aware of her actions and fit to stand trial. Elina seemed resigned to her fate, her last words in court were “I could not have ever been a mother. I do not deserve to live, but, if you let me, I will try to atone for my guilt.” The guilty verdict, even given the extenuating circumstance of her marriage, was preordained, but it was still unusual for a woman to get the death penalty.

Execution.

At this time, commutations and pardons were handled by the State Council, or rather by the State Council’s judicial secretaries. They routinely commuted female death sentences, especially after 1978 when life in prison was also made part of the Bulgarian penal code (until then the penalty for aggravated murder was 10 to 15 years imprisonment or death). For whatever reason, they declined to intervene in this case.

An elaborate shooting mechanism had been installed in the execution chamber of Sofia Central Prison in 1982, but, then as now, the only prison for females in Bulgaria is the one in Sliven. This meant that any arrangements for the execution were left to the discretion of the prison director there, his deputies and the district prosecutor. At one or two in the morning of March 8, Elina was taken from her cell, put in a van and driven to a pre-dug pit on the grounds of the local cemetery. She probably was made to stand on the edge of the pit and a volunteer from the prison guards shot her once in the back of the head. There are no further details of this execution but in an earlier one, due to nerves and/or the unlit ground, the executioner did not have a precise aim and the woman’s heart was still beating 16 minutes after the shot and she finally expired as the officers present were arguing whether to allow for a coup de grâce.

Comment.

In Communist Bulgaria, murders and executions did not happen — at least, according to the official press. The information, therefore, is usually at least, somewhat based on rumours and speculations. In this case, the speculation of Andrey is that what ultimately cost Elina her life was the fact that she was Turkish and her crime took place in a predominantly Turkish city. By the late 1980s even the true believers could see that you cannot make Turks into Bulgarians at gunpoint, and so those who resisted assimilation (the vast majority of Bulgarian Turks) had to be driven out of Bulgaria.

The resistance often took a human toll — between 1983 and 1989 at least nine men were executed for various terrorist attacks and acts of armed resistance that left at least 16 dead and many wounded. Later, from May to August 1989, when borders were temporarily opened, 40% of the Bulgarian Turks (about 360,000 people) left their homes and sought refuge in Turkey in the so-called Grand Excursion (since they were on tourist visas). Quite a lot of those did not leave willingly, but their hand was forced through mass workplace firings, forced evictions from state-owned property, seizure of property and various other suppressive methods.

Elina’s case was not in any way political, but its notoriety among Kardzhali’s 50,000 Turks made the authorities think she should be made an example of “the awful majesty” of the state. The murder of the two boys was a horrific act which met four of the eight criteria for aggravated murder in the Bulgarian penal code, any one of which could result in a death sentence — and yet other similar murders did not result in execution. Once Elina’s fate was known, many among those who knew about the case (who were predominantly Turkish) would have been aware of this double standard. Essentially, Andrey speculates that her execution was a part of a campaign of terror, waged by the Communist Bulgarian state against its Turkish population, designed to either to cow into submission or drive out in terror those who resisted the “Revival process”. Around 200,000 thousand didn’t return after the “Grand Excursion”, and many of those who are still in Bulgaria have deep mistrust of the authorities, so unfortunately this campaign may have been successful.

Executions of male prisoners in Sofia Central Prison.

The shooting mechanism referred to above consisted of two Makarov pistols with their handles and triggers removed, placed on two separate adjustable stands. Instead of a traditional trigger, they were wired so that the firing pins were activated electrically. They were operated by flipping a switch and pressing a button. The second gun was on a separate circuit and was not supposed to fire unless a sensor did not detect the report of the other gun within a set amount of seconds.

Usually guards burst into the cell of the condemned prisoner around 22:30 in the evening, and apparently they almost always informed him (between showers of expletives) that his pardon has been granted, helping him gather his personal belongings for transfer to another cell or prison — even though most prisoners were aware of their impending doom, the charade was kept until he was pinioned.

After certain preparations, the condemned was lead down a corridor to a small room, which on two sides had crimson floor length curtains instead of walls. The prisoner was secured in a fixed chair with his back around 60 cm from one of the “curtain” sides, his verdict was read to him and the guards and officials left the room, leaving the prisoner looking at the mirrored wall directly in front of him (which was, in fact, a one-way mirror). The curtains were designed to conceal the gun nozzle from the condemned and the most credible account has two guns (main and spare) on two separate stands in the corners behind the prisoner, aiming for the temples. There are differing accounts about the procedure, as well as over-elaboration, which is one of the reasons that this mechanism was seldom, if ever, used. Interviews with at least a dozen people who worked in the prison at the time revealed that none had firsthand accounts of executions performed with the machine, while some had vivid recollections how Capt. or Lt. so-and-so “blew X’s brains out” with his pistol

The last execution in the prison took place on November 4th, 1989, six days before the fall of the Communist regime. In 1991 the mechanism was still there, but by 1994 it had vanished (it is presumed that some of the guards decided to supplement their salaries by selling it for scrap). Since the death penalty was not formally abolished until 1998, had the moratorium been lifted, any executions would have taken place in the “traditional” manner. The death chamber is used as a storage room today, with very little left to remind of its former use.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arson,Bulgaria,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Shot,Women

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1683: Two lynched during the Ottoman siege of Vienna

Add comment July 14th, 2018 Headsman

Our “execution” this date is of the mob justice variety — said mob being panicked Viennese bracing for Ottoman investiture.

As is generally the case one has many ways to read this particular lynching; at least one victim has even been situated as a trans martyr. John Stoye in his The Siege of Vienna: The Last Great Trial between Cross & Crescent gives us the thread of causation, and it turns out that these two unfortunates owed their death to Vienna’s urban planning.

The military architecture of this period was designed to keep the besieger at a distance as long as possible. The ground in front of the main defences would be cleared of buildings, and even levelled — this was the ‘glacis’; along the outer rim or ‘counterscarp’ of the moat a well-protected walk, the covered way, was constructed — usually of timber spars and palisades — from which detachments of the garrison could command with their fire the open ground in front of them; and the covered way had to be laid out so that they could command it from a number of angles … Attackers on the glacis, those who reached the counterscarp, those even who got as far as the main wall, were all exposed to fire from artillery and marksmen on the bastions …

Clamped within the walls but expanding in numbers, the citizens of Vienna had tried to build upwards. They added an extra storey to some 400 out of 1,100 houses in little more than a century. But inevitably the suburbs also grew, spreading out into the countryside — and in towards the city. By 1680 there were large settlements in Leopoldstadt on the Prater island, by the right bank of the Wien on the east, round the hamlets of Wieden and St Ulrich south and south-west, and on the western side. Particularly here the new building approached very close to the fortifications. The government had over and over again ordered the demolition of dwellings within a given distance of the walls, but to little effect. If a maximum estimate of Vienna’s total population brings it to nearly 100,000 people, a sizeable proportion must have lived in these suburbs, which would in due course give accommodation and protection to a besieging army.

The foremost Ottoman raiders now appeared, and in the distance the smoke of burning villages in the neighbourhood rose skywards. [Vienna military governor Count Ernst Rudiger von] Starhemberg did not dare delay in performing one of his most disagreeable duties: the speedy and forcible clearing of the glacis. Since earlier demolition orders had not been obeyed, he began — on 13 July — to burn down everything in the area outside the counterscarp which would obviously hamper the garrison. Most of all he wanted to clear the ground west of the city, where suburbs came closest to the moat. More smoke rose skywards. The sparks flew. They flew over the walls as far as the roof of the Schotten monastery by the Schottengate, where a fire broke out in the afternoon of Wednesday, the 14th; and it almost altered the course of history. The wind blew sparks against the neighbouring buildings, an inn, and from the inn to a wall of the Arsenal, where supplies of every kind were stored, including 1,800 barrels of powder. Nearby, other powder magazines adjoined the New-gate. If the defence-works here were seriously damaged by explosion, or the stores lost, resistance to the Turks was hardly thinkable. The flames moved along a wooden gallery into the Arsenal. Townsmen and soldiers gathered, there was a muddle about keys which could not be found, but soldiers broke through a door and cleared the points of greatest danger. A hysterical mob, looking on, smelt treason at once and lynched two suspects, a poor lunatic and a boy wearing woman’s clothes. It also destroyed the baggage which an inoffensive mining official from Hungary, then in Vienna, was trying to get out of a second inn near the Arsenal; and it panicked at the sight of a flag flying unaccountably from a roof close to the fire, fearing some kind of a signal to the enemy. More effectively, the wind then veered. Flames swept towards and into aristocratic properties on the other side, away from the Arsenal, and proceeded to burn out the Auersperg palace where the ruins went on smouldering for days. The crisis had passed before the arrival of the Turks; but the danger of yet more fires, set off by Turkish bombs or by traitors and spies inside the walls, was to be a constant nightmare in Vienna later on.

Despite the nightmare, Vienna — scorched glacis, crazed mobs, and all — withstood the siege. It was indeed the siege’s Turkish military commander who was executed for his command failure before the year was out, after failing to complete the conquest.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arson,Austria,Borderline "Executions",Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1533: The witch of Schiltach

Add comment April 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arson,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Known But To God,Public Executions,Torture,Witchcraft,Women

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1741: John Ury, schoolmaster

Add comment August 29th, 2017 Headsman

Colonial New York’s summer 1741 slave rebellion panic* drew to a close on this date with the execution of the alleged Catholic priest John Ury.

The supposed plot to fire the city, whose reality and extent have been questioned ever since, had seen some 30 souls to the gallows and stakes these past four months after a suspicious series of fires hit the city in the spring.

The original supposed spider at the center of the web of was a white innkeep called John Hughson, who kept a raucous tavern frequented by blacks — and also kept a serving-girl named Mary Burton, the “eyewitness” who would become the inquisitor-judge Daniel Horsmanden‘s faithful familiar throughout the trials, conjuring every new accusation required of the next plot twist.

But even as Hughson was executed in June, the compounding accusations of people in fear of their lives had driven the story past the confines of his humble tavern, all the way to the capitals of the European powers against whom England was fighting a New World naval war. Jill LePore in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan characterizes four Venn-patterned seditions that investigators perceived over the course of these months:

  • Hughson’s Plot, centered on the publican and his establishment;
  • The Negro Plot, extending well beyond Hughson’s circle to compass perhaps the majority of black people in New York;
  • The Spanish Plot, a foreign plan — possibly coordinated with an internal slave rising — to destroy New York or seize her for Spain; and,
  • The Catholic Plot.

It was the last of these, perfectly calibrated for the Anglo id, that would gather all the other strands together. What hand could unite the threats within and without? The priest. Who moved conspiratorially among Englishmen while obeying the dictates of a foreign potentate? The priest. Who gave men the boldness to murder their masters through his promise of absolving worldly sin? The priest.

The confusing — the incoherent — unfolding of trials that summer became marvelously clarified once apprehended as a Catholic intrigue; maybe the only wonder was that this decisive reveal emerged so late. The prosecutor of the trial that concerns us in this post would say as much in his summation:

Though this work of darkness, in the contrivance of a horrible plot, to burn and destroy this city, has manifested itself in many blazing effects, to the terror and amazement of us all; yet the secret springs of this mischief lay long concealed: this destructive scene has opened by slow degrees: but now, gentlemen, we have at length great reason to conclude, that it took its rise from a foreign influence; and that it originally depended upon causes, that we ourselves little thought of, and which, perhaps, very few of the inferior and subordinate agents were intimately acquainted with.

Gentlemen, if the evidence you have heard is sufficient to produce a general conviction that the late fires in this city, and the murderous design against its inhabitants, are the effects of a Spanish and popish plot, then the mystery of this iniquity, which has so much puzzled us, is unveiled, and our admiration ceases: all the mischiefs we have suffered or been threatened with, are but a sprout from that evil root, a small stream from that overflowing fountain of destruction, that has often deluged the earth with slaughter and blood, and spread ruin and desolation far and wide.

It might have been a warning letter sent by governor of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, that prepared this popish cast to events. “Some intelligence I had of a villainous design of a very extraordinary nature, if true, very important, viz. that the Spaniards had employed emissaries to burn all the magazines and considerable towns in the English North-America,” Oglethorpe wrote in May of 1741. And who were these “emissaries”? “Many priests were employed, who pretended to be physicians, dancing-masters, and other such kinds of occupations; and under that pretence to get admittance and confidence in families.”

These few words would prove a death warrant.

Days after Oglethorpe’s letter arrived to New York, a Manhattan newcomer named John Ury was taken up as a suspected undercover priest — appearing to fit Oglethorpe’s description for he had advertised himself a schoolmaster “pretending to teach Greek and Latin.” Latin!

Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ servant turned stool pigeon for all seasons, revised her original depositions averring that she had never seen white people besides her own household at Hughson’s nefarious negro gatherings and now conveniently remembered that this guy named Ury or Jury “used to come there almost every night, and sometimes used to lie there.” And he was Catholicizing the slaves as he inducted them into a spectacular conspiracy. How could I have forgotten to mention it?!

“Corroborating” testimony to this same effect would also be wrenched from the white soldier William Kane … when Mary’s fabrications against Kane forced him to choose between joining his accuser in perjury or joining slaves at the gallows. And the case was cinched by John Hughson’s miserable daughter Sarah, who spent that entire summer suspended between life and death before she was finally pardoned on the very morning of John Ury’s trial — an expedient necessary to clear the reluctant but desperate young woman to provide evidence against the “priest.”

Ury denied being Catholic at all; he defended himself vigorously in a nine-hour trial and clowned his accuser on cross-examination:

Prisoner: You say you have seen me several times at Hughson’s, what clothes did I usually wear?

Mary Burton: I cannot tell what clothes you wore particularly.

Prisoner: That is strange, and [k]now me so well.

Furthermore, Ury noted, he had been forewarned of the suspicions against him but not attempted to flee. Plus, what about all those people who had been executed since May? “The negro who confessed as it is said that he set fire to the fort did not mention me in all his confession doubtless he would not have neglected and passed over such a person as I am said to be … neither Huson his wife nor the creature that was hanged with them and all that have been put to death since did not once name me.”

Show trials are not proper venues for defenses, of course. If anything can be said on behalf of Ury’s appalling prosecution, it is that the production of an arch-villain permitted the final closure of a terrorist-hunt that weeks before had seemed on the verge of becoming a literal hecatomb. Horsmanden’s senior colleague on the bench, James De Lancey, had shown keen to wrap things up; at the same time, as an Atlantic oligarch, he likely viewed the foreign threat of the Spanish and/or Catholic plot far more gravely. From either perspective, Ury’s death was a fit end to the scene.

Ury was hanged on August 29, 1741, a month to the day after his trial. (He was originally to have shared his gallows with the Spaniard Juan de la Silva on August 15, but had been respited.) The freelance teacher turned infernal mastermind prepared a written vindication of himself for a friend, and at the gallows he “repeated somewhat of the substance of it before he was turned of.” Here it is:

Fellow Christians —

I am now going to suffer a death attended with ignominy and pain; but it is the cup that my heavenly father has put into my hand, and I drink it with pleasure; it is the cross of my dear redeemer, I bear it with alacrity; knowing that all that live godly in Christ Jesus, must suffer persecution; and we must be made in some degree partakers of his sufferings before we can share in the glories of his resurrection: for he went not up to glory before he ascended Mount Calvary; did not wear the crown of glory before the crown of thorns.

And I am to appear before an awful and tremendous God, a being of infinite purity and unerring justice, a God who by no means will clear the guilty, that cannot be reconciled either to sin or sinners; now this is the being at whose bar I am to stand, in the presence of this God, the possessor of heaven and earth, I lift up my hands and solemnly protest I am innocent of what is laid to my charge: I appeal to the great God for my non-knowledge of Hewson [sic], his wife, or the creature that was hanged with them, I never saw them living, dying, or dead; nor never had I any knowledge or confederacy with white or black as to any plot; and upon the memorials of the body and blood of my dearest lord, in the creatures of bread and wine, in which I have commemorated the love of my dying lord, I protest that the witnesses are perjured; I never knew the perjured witnesses but at my trial.

But for the removal of all scruples that may arise after my death I shall give my thoughts on some points.

First — I firmly believe and attest, that it is not in the power of man to forgive sin; that it is the prerogative only of the great God to dispense pardon for sins; and that those who dare pretend to such a power, do in some degree commit that great and unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit, because they pretend to that power which their own consciences proclaim to be a lie.

Again, I solemnly attest and believe, that a person having committed crimes that have or might have proved hurtful or destructive to the peace of society, and does not discover the whole scheme, and all the persons concerned with them, cannot obtain pardon from God: and it is not the taking any oath or oaths that ought to hinder him from confessing his guilt, and all that he knows about it; for such obligations are not only sinful, but unpardonable, if not broken: now a person firmly believing this, and knowing that an eternal state of happiness or misery depends upon the performance or non-performance of the above-mentioned things, cannot, will not trifle with such important affairs.

I have not more to say by way of clearing my innocence, knowing that to a true Christian unprejudiced mind, I must appear guiltless; but however, I am not very solicitous about it. I rejoice, and it is now my comfort (and that will support me and protect me from the crowd of evil spirits that I must meet with in my flight to the region of bliss assigned me) that my conscience speaks peace to me.

Indeed, it may be shocking to some serious Christians, that the holy God should suffer innocence to be slain by the hands of cruel and bloody persons; (I mean the witnesses who swore against me at my trial), indeed, there may be reasons assigned for it; but, as they may be liable to objections, I decline them; and shall only say, that this is one of the dark providences of the great God, in his wise, just and good government of this lower earth.

In fine, I depart this waste, this howling wilderness, with a mind serene, free from all malice, with a forgiving spirit, so far as the gospel of my dear and only redeemer obliges and enjoins me to, hoping and praying, that Jesus, who alone is the giver of repentance, will convince, conquer and enlighten my murderers’ souls, that they may publicly confess their horrid wickedness before God and the world, so that their souls may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

And now, a word of advice to you, spectators: behold me launching into eternity; seriously, solemnly view me, and ask yourselves severally, how stands the case with me? die I must: am I prepared to meet my Lord when the midnight cry is echoed forth? shall I then have the wedding garment on? Oh, sinners! trifle no longer; consider life hangs on a thread; here to-day and gone to-morrow; forsake your sins ere ye be forsaken forever: hearken, now is God awfully calling you to repent, warning you by me, his minister and prisoner, to embrace Jesus, to take, to lay hold on him for your alone savior, in order to escape the wrath to come; no longer delay, seeing the summons may come before ye are aware, and you standing before the bar of a God who is consuming fire out of the Lord Jesus Christ, should be hurled, be doomed to that place, where their worm dies not, and their fire is never to be quenched.

* Longtime readers may recall that the series to which this post belongs ran last year. Embarrassingly I lost track of the date, and in the almanac form the calendar is unforgiving.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,New York,Public Executions,Terrorists,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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Feast Day of St. Eupsychius, anti-Apostate

3 comments April 9th, 2017 Headsman

April 9 is the (Roman) feast date of the minor Cappadocian saint Eupsychius.

As martyr to the hated-of-Christians pagan throwback emperor Julian the Apostate, Eupsychius could perhaps be accounted an ironical late victim of the fratricidal family politics that consumed the heirs of the great Christianizer Constantine the Great.

When Constantine kicked off in 337, he left three sons of a disgraced empress whom he optimistically hoped would share rulership. What happened instead was that, inside of a generation, practically the entire Constantinian line laid one another in the earth by dint of bloodthirsty dynastic rivalries, leaving only two men standing.

And it so happened that those two kinsmen faced one another across late antiquity’s gaping spiritual chasm: one a Christian, the other a pagan.

Constantius was the surviving son of Constantine, and regardless his Christian affiliation had secured his initial control of his father’s new eastern capital by unsentimentally butchering the bulk of his extended family including his own uncle Julius Constantius, and Julius’s firstborn son. Two other sons of Julius Constantine, too young for the abbatoir, escaped their brother’s fate and so our future Julian the Apostate grew up under a perpetually dancing Damoclean sword, a bookish philosophizing type enchanted by classical learning — so enchanted that he would eventually, and at first very quietly, apostatize from his substantial Christian education and adhere instead to the old gods.

In the fullness of time, the remainder of Constantius’s family succumbed to various civil wars — including Julian’s only surviving brother, Gallus, executed for treachery in 354 in an incident that could very well have claimed Julian as well if for no other reason than proximity. A prolific writer, Julian would later recall that “if some God, to inure my safety, had not ingratiated me with his [Constantius’s] beautiful and excellent wife, Eusebia, I could not have escaped his resentment.” Perhaps the childless Constantius could foresee well enough that, resentment or no, his last relation would be required for imperial policy soon enough.

And indeed the very next year, having spent many months mulling over whether to kill him, Constantius instead elevated Julian as his junior co-emperor. The young scholar soon distinguished himself as a surprisingly competent leader and battlefield commander, pacifying Germania and Gaul before, almost inevitably, the two emperors turned on one another in civil war. Julian must have been well-favored of goddess Fortuna whom he will defend in this post, for he won that war before the first spear was chucked when Constantius took ill and died as the rivals steered their armies towards one another.

So suddenly, 40 years after the empire had officially gone Christian, it had a pagan ruler — the last pagan ruler it would ever know.

Julian was an intelligent and idealistic young man. Taking power before the age of 30, he set a bold course to massively remake the empire in the image of its most admirable anachronisms: living modestly, paring the bureaucracy, debating Senators as their equal instead of their overlord, and — the attempted rollback that would mark his nickname and his reputation — restoring a pre-Christian cosmology to philosophical preeminence.

A few books about Julian the Apostate

This could have been Julian the Apostate‘s life’s work, twenty or thirty of forty years dislodging Christianity from the official foothold it had only recently attained and creating the groundwork for a pagan-dominated middle ages: fine grist for speculative alternative history, since Julian actually died in 363 in war against the Persians.

Having learned from the failure of previous rulers’ persecutions, he deployed instead the devious and modern mechanic of liberal religious toleration, starving the “Galileans” of the galvanizing force of either state backing or state oppression while perhaps setting their orthodox edifice up to splinter over time as various heretical movements began freely venting their rival doctrines on one another.


Julian the Apostate presiding at a conference of sectarians, by Edward Armitage (1875).

His uniqueness and his erudition have made him an attractive character for modern interlocutors, especially those of the Christ-skeptic variety; Gore Vidal sympathetically centered Julian in an engrossing historical novel, and Gibbon warmly admired him:

The Christians, who had now possessed above forty years the civil and ecclesiastical government of the empire, had contracted the insolent vices of prosperity, and the habit of believing that the saints alone were entitled to reign over the earth. As soon as the enmity of Julian deprived the clergy of the privileges which had been conferred by the favour of Constantine, they complained of the most cruel oppression; and the free toleration of idolaters and heretics was a subject of grief and scandal to the orthodox party. The acts of violence, which were no longer countenanced by the magistrates, were still committed by the zeal of the people. At Pessinus the altar of Cybele was overturned almost in the presence of the emperor, and in the city of Caesarea, in Cappadocia, the temple of Fortune, the sole place of worship which had been left to the Pagans, was destroyed by the rage of a popular tumult. On these occasions, a Prince who felt for the honour of the gods was not disposed to interrupt the course of justice; and his mind was still more deeply exasperated when he found that the fanatics, who had deserved and suffered the punishment of incendiaries, were rewarded with the honours of martyrdom.

It is the last named of these incidents that finally brings us round to our date’s principal.

Like Julian himself, St. Eupsychius had no way of knowing that the new, old order would be a transient epoch. In his zeal to resist a rejuvenated paganism, Eupsychius led a riotous sack of a temple to Fortuna (Tyche). The church historian Sozomen gives us the primary-est historical record, and although it dates to several decades after Eupsychius’s martyrdom we can’t be picky when it comes to antiquity.

It is said that at this time were martyred Basilius, a presbyter of the church of Ancyra, and Eupsychius, a nobleman of Caesarea in Cappadocia, newly wed and in a manner of speaking still a bridegroom. As regards Eupsychius, I conjecture that he was executed because of the temple of Tyche, then destroyed, on account of which destruction, as has been said above, all citizens of Caesarea collectively experienced the emperor’s wrath, while those who personally took part in it were punished, some with death, some with banishment.

Later iterations would expand predictably on Eupsychius’s sufferings — tortures, miracle-making, blood and milk springing from his wound, and even eventually eliding the precipitating riot or arson — all of which conspires to pull a discernibly historical figure behind the dark glass of hagiography.*

Little more than a year later, Julian suffered a mortal wound in battle against the Sassanids. The Constantinian dynasty died with Julian, as did his signature project of Apostasy — a sudden volte-face of that fickle Fortuna whose memory and reputation would persist well beyond the twilight of paganism.

The History of Rome podcast deals with Julian in episodes 143, 144, 145, and 146. Lars Brownworth also covers Julian in episode 5 of the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast.

* See L.G. Westerink, “The Two Faces of St. Eupsychius,” Harvard Ukrainian Studies, Vol. 7, Okeanos: Essays presented to Ihor Shevchenko on his Sixtieth Birthday by his Colleagues and Students (1983).

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1832: James Lea and Joseph Grindley, arsonists

Add comment March 31st, 2017 Headsman

The London Times of April 7, 1832 brings us this arson double hanging evidencing the extension of the rural Swing Riots labor rebellion from its southern heartland up to the West Midlands.

CONFESSION OF LEA AND GRINDLEY.

(From the Salopian Journal.)

After their trial and condemnation Lea evinced much anxiety, and expressed a wish to disburden his mind by stating all that he knew of the transactions in which he had been so deeply implicated; and he observed that he would freely do so, but that he had acted under the encouragement of certain abettors, who had bound him under the obligation of a horrible oath not to divulge the counsels and purposes in which they had engaged his assistance.

However, on Wednesday last, having, from the instruction and advice to which he was submitted, in preparation for that state to which he was so shortly to remove, satisfied himself that no compact such as we have described could be binding upon him, but, on the contrary, was in itself most iniquitous, he made a full and complete confession as to all the parties implicated in the atrocious conspiracy to which he had been a ready instrument, and in furtherance of which, it appeared, his department was to set Grindley at work under the instructions that he himself received from the prime members of the conspiracy.

Who the parties implicated are, and what Lea stated, cannot of course be here more particularly alluded to; it is, however, a striking circumstance that he again affirmed the truth of Wednesday’s confession just previous to his ascending the scaffold.

The sacrament having been administered to the unhappy men in the chapel of the jail, they were pinioned and at 12 o’clock the procession commenced moving from the chapel to the lodge, where the convicts spent a few minutes in prayer with the Chaplain, and were then conducted to the platform.

Grindley ascended first, and the rope, &c., having been adjusted, he continued to pray to Heaven for mercy until the fatal bolt was drawn. Lea ascended the steps of the scaffold apparently with more difficulty than Grindley, though both met their fate with much firmness, and with a demeanor becoming their awful situation.

Richard Whitfield, convicted at our late Assizes for writing threatening letters, and now under sentence of transportation for life, was among the convicts brought out into the yard to witness the execution; and as soon as the culprits ascended the scaffold a striking and most ominous change was apparent in his countenance. His intimate connexion with these wretched men, as already known to the public, would of itself be sufficient to account for this, if no other circumstances were within the knowledge of himself and those whose awful exit he was fated to witness; but, if the statement made on Wednesday by Lea be correct, not only Richard Whitfield, but several other parties not in custody, have an account to give, either in this world or the next, the very recollection of which might well make a man of the stoutest nerves tremble.

(An 1830s publication on the fires in Shropshire, which also summarizes the trials Lea, Grindley, and Whitfield, can be read here. -ed.)

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2017: Seven in Kuwait, including a sheikh

3 comments January 25th, 2017 Headsman

A sheikh, and six others much less exalted hanged this morning in Kuwait.

Garnering most of the headlines, Sheikh Faisal Abdullah al-Jaber al-Sabah — the first Kuwaiti royal ever put to death — shot an equally royal nephew dead in 2010.

He was one of only two actual Kuwaitis among the seven hanged; the population of the oil-rich Gulf emirate is more than half comprised of foreign nationals at any given time. The other Kuwaiti was a woman, Nasra al-Enezi, who vengefully set fire to a wedding tent when her husband took a second wife. More than 50 people reportedly died in the blaze.

The Philippines was exercised over the fate of its national, Jakatia Pawa — a domestic worker condemned for stabbing her employer’s adult daughter to death. Kuwait is the sixth-largest destination for the vast expatriate labor sector known as Overseas Filipino/a Workers (OFWs).

An Ethiopian maid, unnamed in the press reports that I have been able to find, was also convicted of murder, as were two Egyptians. The seventh to go to the scaffold today was a Bangladeshi man condemned for a non-fatal kidnapping and rape.

Human rights organizations were naturally aghast, with Human Rights Watch denouncing the mass hanging — on the heels of capital punishment resumptions in Jordan and Bahrain — as part of an “alarming trend in the region for countries to return to or increasingly use the death penalty.”

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1915: Cordella Stevenson lynched

1 comment December 8th, 2016 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1915, a mob visited Cordella Stevenson’s cabin, dragged her out, and lynched her.

The good citizens of Columbus, Mississippi, found her body the next day, hanging from a tree limb. The site of her lynching was only 50 yards north of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, and rail passengers who came in and out of the city that day saw her corpse thus displayed. She had been “maltreated” (that is, raped) and stripped naked before being strung up.

Several months before, Gabe Frank, a local white man, lost his barn to fire. Although there was no direct evidence to implicate him and he had not been seen in the area for months prior to the fire, Cordella and Arch Stevenson’s son came under suspicion of arson.

The parents were respectable people who had worked for the same white employer for over a decade, but the son had a “worthless” reputation. Frank tried tracking the young man with bloodhounds, but was unsuccessful. The local police arrested Cordella and kept her locked up for several days, hoping she might know something of her son’s whereabouts, but they eventually released her without charge.

The Stevensons thought or hoped that would be the end of the matter.

Arch and Cordella had already gone to bed that Wednesday night in December when, at about 10:00 p.m., they heard someone pounding on their door. Before they could get to the door to answer it, the vigilantes had broken it down. They seized Cordella, pointed their rifles at Arch, and threatened to shoot him if he moved. At some point he managed to flee, bullets whizzing miraculously past him in the dark, and he ran to town for help. Arch knew what was good for him; after reporting what happened to the authorities, he fled the area for parts unknown. Meanwhile, somewhere out there in the night, the mob fell on his wife.

Kerry Segrave recorded in his book Lynching of Women in the United States: Recorded Cases, 1851-1946:

Sheriff Bell telephoned to Justice of the Peace McKellar to hold an inquest. He was out of town and did not return until Thursday night. As a result, the naked body was left hanging in view of the “morbid” crowd that came to see it until Friday morning when it was cut down and the inquest was held. That inquest jury returned a verdict that Cordella Stevenson came to her death at the hands of persons unknown.

The Chicago Defender, a (still-extant) black newspaper noted for its accurate reporting of Jim Crow era violence, bitterly editorialized, “This these southern culprits did. No law below the Mason and Dixon line that would cause them to fear. No officer in the police department that would dare to do his duty. No man in the government circles in Washington that has enough backbone to enforce the Constitution of the United States. This mob knew and they went on with their ghastly work.”

A century later, Cordella Stevenson’s ghastly death has still not been forgotten. In 2013, a poem for her, titled “What the Dark Said”, was published in the collection Ain’t No Grave, by Tennessee poet TJ Jarrett.

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1681: Maria, Jack, and William Cheney

Add comment September 22nd, 2016 Headsman

[1681 September] 22. There were 3 persons executed in Boston[.] An Englishman for a Rape. A negro man for burning a house at Northampton & a negro woman who burnt 2 houses at Roxbury July 12 — in one of wch a child was burnt to death.* The negro woman was burned to death — the 1st yt has suffered such a death in N.E.

diary of Increase Mather

These three unfortunates were all three perpetrators of separate crimes, united by the logistical convenience of a joint execution date.

Maria’s claim on the horrible distinction of having been burned alive has been doubted by some,** but if Mather’s diary is correct it was undoubtedly done to mirror a crime so frightful to the masters: the firing of their own domiciles by their own domestics. The record in the Massachusetts Bay Colony’s court records assuredly elides a fathomless depth of human passion.

Maria, a negro servant to Joshua Lambe of Roxbury, in the county of Suffoike in New England, being presented by the Grand Jury was indicted by the name of Maria Negro for not having the feare of God before hir eyes and being instigated by the devil at or upon the eleventh of July last in the night did wittingly, willingly and feloniously set on fire the dwelling house of Thomas Swann of said Roxbury by taking a Coale from under a still and carried it into another roome and laide it on the floore neere the doore and presently went and crept into a hole at a back doore of thy Masters Lambs house and set it on fier also taking a live coale betweene two chips and carried it into the chamber by which also it was consumed. As by uour Confession will appeare contrary to the peace of our Souevaigne Lord the King his croune.

The prisoner at the bar pleaded and acknowledged herself to be guilty of said fact. And accordingly the next day being again brought to the bar and sentenced of death pronounced against her by the honorable Governor, yet she should go from the bar to the prison from whence she came and thence to the place of execution and there be burnt.

Thy Lord be merciful to thy soul.

Three days later a fugitive slave named Jack — “Run away from Mr. Samuell Wolcot because he always beates him sometimes with 100 blows so that he hath told his master that he would sometime or other hang himself” — torched a house in Northampton, seemingly by accident while foraging by torchlight. There can’t have been a connection between these two slaves and their seemingly very different acts of resistance, but where once is coincidence, twice is a trend: Jack was convicted of arson and taken from Northampton to Boston at some inconvenience to the colony (the trip took 15 days and cost £2) for exhibition at the same pyre as Maria. Jack was certainly burned only posthumously.

As for the white gentleman, we will give the word to Increase Mather’s chip off the old block, Rev. Cotton Mather:

On September 22, 1681, one W.C. [William Cheney] was executed at Boston for a rape committed by him on a girl that liv’d with him; though he had then a wife with child by him, of a nineteenth or twentieth child.

This man had been “wicked overmuch.” His parents were godly persons; but he was a “child of Belial.” He began early to shake off his obedience unto them; and early had fornication laid unto his charge; after which, he fled unto a dissolute corner of the land, a place whereof it might be said, “Surely the fear of God is not in this place.”

He being a youth under the inspection of the church at Roxbury, they, to win him, invited him to return unto his friends, with such expressions of lenity towards him, that the reverend old man their pastor, in a sermon on the day when this man was executed, with tears bewail’d it.

After this, he liv’d very dissolutely in the town of Dorchester; where, in a fit of sickness, he vow’d that, if God would spare his life, he would live as a new man; but he horribly forgot his vows. The instances of his impiety grew so numerous and prodigious, that the wrath of God could bear no longer with him; he was ripen’d for the gallows.

After his condemnation, he vehemently protested his innocency of the fact for which he was condemn’d; but he confess’d “that God was righteous, thus to bring destruction upon him for secret adulteries.”

A reprieve would have been obtain’d for him, if his foolish and froward refusing to hear a sermon on the day appointed for his execution had not hardened the heart of the judge against him. He who had been a great scoffer at the ordinances of God, now exposed himself by being left unto such a sottish action!

He had horribly slighted all calls to repentance, and now, through some wretches over-perswading [sic] of him that he should not die according to sentence and order of the court, he hardened himself still in his unrepentant frame of mind.

When he came to the gallows, and saw death (and a picture of hell, too, in a negro then burnt to death at the stake, for burning her master’s house, with some that were in it,) before his face, never was a cry for “Time! time! a world for a little time! the inexpressible worth of time!” uttered with a most unutterable anguish.

He then declared, that “the greatest burden then lying upon his miserable soul, was his having lived so unprofitably under the preaching of the gospel.”

* It is flatly incorrect that Maria’s arson killed anyone. She was indicted for arson, and there is no reference to an associated murder in the trial record or non-Mather accounts.

** Notice that the court order does not direct that Maria be burned to death. This letter, as an example of a possible rival interpretation, indicates that “two were this day Executed heer and Exposed to the flames for those Crimes,” implying an equivalence between the punishments of the two slaves: hanged to death, then their bodies burned.

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