On this date in 1481, two Lithuanian princes were beheaded in Vilnius for plotting the assassination of the Polish-Lithuanian king.
This late 15th century was a heady time for Poland under the Jagiellon dynasty, and one of this dynasty’s going projects was keeping the adjacent realms of Poland and Lithuania linked together. In time, they would become formally joined, but at this point they were independent entities “united” only by the personal union of the Jagiellon monarch himself.
That monarch in the late 15th century was the redoubtable Casimir IV (Kazimierz IV): Grand Duke of Lithuania since 1440, King of Poland since 1447. Casimir’s family hailed from Lithuania; indeed, as that place had been last European place to Christianize, Casimir’s own father had been born a pagan.
Casimir IV’s eponymous son is St. Casimir, patron saint of both Lithuania and Poland; both actively honor his feast date of March 4.
Lithuania had a strong independent streak (pdf), and its boyars did not necessarily see eye to eye with the Grand Duke. Casimir was keen on centralizing Lithuania’s administration and checking the potential rivalry of the most powerful Lithuanian families, the classic seeds of crown-vs-nobility conflict the world over.
And both watched with a wary eye the growth of Muscovy under the energetic leadership of Ivan III, aka Ivan the Great.
That expanding state in the 1470s gobbled up the buffer city-state of Novgorod; Ivan III’s newly-minted honorific Tsar of all the Rus(sians) openly announced his designs on Lithuania’s own historically Slavic Ruthenian territory. “The gatherer of the Russian lands,” Ivan is known as … and Lithuania (much larger then than it is now) stood to be the gatheree.
The Great Stand on the River Ugra
Come 1480, Casimir was allied against Moscow with the Mongol Horde, the famous “Tatar yoke” that had been collecting Russian tribute for two-plus centuries. In Russian historiography this is the crucial moment when that yoke is thrown off, and the Muscovites accomplished that in part by crossing up the Lithuanians.
The Horde, having marched through Lithuanian territory, assembled on the banks of the Ugra River, opposite a waiting Muscovite army. Neither army attacked. Instead, they waited … and waited … and waited some more.
The Horde, for its part, was waiting for reinforcements from its Lithuanian ally. But those reinforcements never arrived, thanks in part to Russia’s alliance with Crimean khan Mengli Giray, who seems to have absorbed Casimir’s attention in the fall of 1480 with a vexing combination of raids into southern Lithuania and dilatory ceasefire diplomacy. Distracted by the homeland threat, Lithuania never got around to supporting the Horde … and the Horde, after freezing itself on the banks of the Ugra for a couple of months, simply marched away in frustration.
Moscow never again paid it tribute … and its Crimean ally destroyed the Great Horde utterly in 1502.
This was the context, back in Lithuania, for the attempt on Casimir’s life that would cost two princes their heads. Notwithstanding his unhelpful alliance with the Great Horde, it seems apparent that Casimir himself espoused a fundamentally western policy: the Jagiellon dynasty had branches in Hungary, Bohemia, Germany, and Casimir had more taste for meddling in these realms than dealing with Russia. One could imagine how a Lithuanian magnate out his lucrative Novgorod trade would feel like the head man didn’t really have his eye on the ball; in 1478, a Lithuanian delegation even requested that Casimir appoint a Lithuanian governor to look after the interests of the Grand Duchy. (Casimir refused.)
And these nobles were getting it at both ends, since Casimir’s state-centralization project meant that they were being cut down to size in terms of their internal political power, too.
Apparently with the support of Moscow itself (whose expansionary interest is self-evident) Iwan Holszanski and Fedor Bielski hatched a plan to murder the Grand Duke and his sons on Palm Sunday, 1481 — which was also the occasion of Fedor Bielski’s wedding. The idea was to replace him with Michal Olelkowicz (Mikhail Olelkevich), who had been Novgorod’s elected prince-ruler in the late 1460s; it’s not clear to me if Olelkowicz himself was actually in on the scheme.
Casimir, at any rate, caught wind of the plot. Legend has it that a servant decorating a room ran across the conspirators’ weapons niches and reported it; it’s alternately alleged that the assassins meant to jump Casimir while out on his favorite pastime, hunting.
However it was supposed to go down, it didn’t work. Bielski was able to flee to Moscow (ditching his newlywed bride), but left Holszanski and the coup’s prospective beneficiary Olelkowicz to suffer beheading this date upon evidence “brighter than the sun” of their treason.
On this date in 1768, a year of tremendous labor agitation in London, seven coal-heavers were hanged near the Shadwell dock.
With food prices surging,* the city’s hard-pressed urban proletariat was at peak militancy — which also lent violent energy the cause of hunted radical politician John Wilkes, who had returned from exile this year to stand for Parliament. Two principal loci of labor insurgency in 1768 were the Spitalfields weavers, whose struggle we have already observed, and the “coal heavers” — the men who did the grueling labor of offloading coal from Thames barges.
Coal-heaving was ill-paid and dangerous, and it was notoriously sensitive to fraud: workers (largely Irish: they’d been imported to hold down wages) being paid by the “sack” or the “vat” fought supervisors at riverside over just how fully loaded with coal such a sack or vat should be. Workers had their own recourse to “indirect Practises,” pilfering a few coals on the side to supplement pay up to within hailing distance of subsistence. The boss would call “theft” this grey-area practice harkening to labor traditions ancient and still-current. The rope would help him define it so.
Peter Linebaugh’s magisterial social history The London Hanged dramatically treats the fraught and violent months of the spring of 1768, when Irish workingmen were “bringing river traffic to a stand-still … [and] stopped the imperialist artery.”
Dockside taverns doubled as fraternal entities and regiments in the unfolding dock war. One John Green, keeper of a pub on New-Gravel Lane (not as scenic as the nearby Cutthroat Lane)
organized scab labour from [his] Roundabout Tavern. It was attacked in April with gunfire. A shoemaker bled to death on the pavement, a coal-heaver took a bullet in the head, ‘dropped down backwards, and never stirred’. The taverns were besieged, their furnishings destroyed. Gunfire was frequent. Green was acquitted of murder. Those testifying for him were mobbed and one witness had her jaw broken. The coal-heavers were as violent in word as in deed. ‘They would have Green’s Heart and Liver and Do for him'; ‘they would have him joint from joint'; ‘they would have his heart and liver, and cut him in pieces and hang him on his sign'; ‘they would hang him over his sign Post & cut him into Beef Stakes’.
Our seven — by name John Grainger, Daniel Clark, Richard Cornwall, Patrick Lynch, Thomas Murray, Peter Flaharty, and Nicholas McCabe — were indicted on grounds that they “with force and arms, with certain guns loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, feloniously, wilfully, and maliciously did shoot off at John Green.” Not quite cut into Beef Stakes, but it’ll get the job done.
Though the trials of Green, and then of Green’s assailants, were weeks apart, they concerned the very same disturbance on the night of April 20-21, when Green’s residence had been besieged by angry coal-heavers and Green with others had shot out the windows and killed at least two … but managed to hold his foes at bay during what must have been a harrowing night. Green wasn’t hurt, and gave evidence at the “shooting off” trial.
The London Irish had by 1768 an unparalleled knowledge of arms and armed struggle. They contributed to an insurrectionary impulse within the London working class. At the same time, as a consequence, the Irish had close knowledge of violent death. The intimacy of that knowledge was expressed in vivid euphemisms designed to reduce the terror of hanging. Seven coal-heavers received the ‘cramp jaw’ at the Old Bailey only after a new interpretation was placed upon the Waltham Black Act. The seven danced ‘a new jig without music’ on 26 July 1768. This particular ‘crack neck assembly’ was located in Sun Tavern fields, Shadwell … The move from Tyburn was designed to terrify the poor and working people of the river parishes. The ‘breath stopper’ was witnessed by 50,000 spectators, perhaps the largest crowd at such a scene since the hanging of the Earl of Ferrers eight years earlier. The Government anticipated disorders, if not rescue attempts, when these seven were to dance ‘tuxt de ert and de skies’. From 6 a.m. more than 600 soldiers patrolled the streets of Wapping and Shadwell. The Sheriff ordered all the constables of the Tower and Holborn divisions to assemble at the hanging site and to come armed with their staves. Thomas Turlis, the hangman, had stolen coal from a neighbour’s cellar five years earlier. But, that his work might not be interrupted, the Sheriff quickly obtained a pardon for him. He did his duty upon the coal-heavers, sent ‘a-spinning like a whirligig’. Once they had ‘peacably’ exited the world, many of the spectators may have gone for a drink as was customary:
Wid a facer we coddled our blood
For de wind id blows cold from de gibbett.
… The hanging at Sun Tavern Fields … taught a hard lesson about collective bargaining: attempts to counteract the rise in the price of provisions by improving wage rates would not be allowed. … the insurrectionary vanguard of the river proletariat was broken.
Or, as a more sanguine observer put it, after the hangings “the tumults immediately ceased, and peace and industry was happily restored.” And they all lived happily ever after.
* Bread prices doubled in 1768, leading to work stoppages, hoarding, and food riots throughout the city. Representative slogan shouted by desperate rioters: “We might as well be hanged as starve.” (George Rude, “The London ‘Mob’ of the Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal, Vol. II, no. 1 (1959))
“Everything passed simply, decorously, and without affectation on his part,” is the entirety of Stendhal’s death scene for his man.
Julien Sorel, the flawed (or anti-) hero of The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir), is the intelligent son of a provincial carpenter who puts his wits to use trying to climb Restoration France’s treacherous social ladder.
Ambition, says Stendhal, is “the very essence of his existence,” much as it is for his milieu, and through Julien’s exertions — brilliant and resourceful at times; infuriatingly handicapped by social prejudice against the protagonist’s low birth at others — the author sets down one of the most psychologically forceful works in the canon.
Julien Sorel’s ambition also powers his youthful passion, and his fall: to conquer the mother of the children he tutors, and to likewise conquer the daughter of a nobleman.** This latter conquest has him a made man, married into the aristocracy and set with a plum military assignment that has Julien dreaming of Napoleon … so when the spurned former conquest denounces Julien to the father of that latter conquest as an upstart seducer cynically shagging his way into decent society, the incensed Julien hauls off and shoots that previous conquest. (As she kneels at Mass, no less.)
Is it a mere jealous fit? Even though his victim survives the attack, and forgives her lover, Julien obstinately pleads guilty, and insists on his own maximum culpability. It’s not only an individual criminal culpability, but a culpability of class aspiration.
‘I ask you for no mercy,’ Julien went on, his voice growing stronger. ‘I am under no illusion; death is in store for me; it will be a just punishment. I have been guilty of attempting the life of the woman most worthy of all respect, of all devotion. Madame de Renal had been like a mother to me. My crime is atrocious, and it was premeditated. I have, therefore, deserved death, Gentlemen of the Jury. But, even were I less guilty, I see before me men who, without pausing to consider what pity may be due to my youth, will seek to punish in me and to discourage forever that class of young men who, born in an inferior station and in a sense burdened with poverty, have the good fortune to secure a sound education, and the audacity to mingle with what the pride of rich people calls society.
‘That is my crime, Gentlemen, and it will be punished with all the more severity inasmuch as actually I am not being tried by my peers. I do not see, anywhere among the jury, a peasant who has grown rich, but only indignant bourgeois …’
The Red and the Black is available in its French original here; in English translation here; and as a free French audio book here. And here’s some literary analysis
* The date is not explicit in the text. The Red and the Black was subtitled Chronique de 1830, but several past-tense allusions to the event show that the main action takes place after the July Revolution of 1830 that toppled Charles X and raised Louis-Philippe to the throne. There is, however, a late and seemingly anachronistic allusion to Julien’s lover/victim intending to “throw herself at the feet of Charles X” to appeal for his life. Oh well: ambiguity is the novel’s stock in trade.
Further to that body’s sanguinary campaign against papal political domination, they authored an attempted kidnapping and/or assassination of the Vatican’s Romagna enforcer, Cardinal Rivarola. Rivarola had recently issued mass condemnations against carbonari.
Which is very nice. But they didn’t get the Cardinal.
Ubiquitous 19th century papal executioner Mastro Titta conducted the executions — the 266th through 269th of his career (he’d also done Gaetano Montanari’s better-known brother Leonida three years before) — and devoted a chapter of his memoirs to the occasion. You can call the carbonari terrorists if you wish, but the Ravenna populace’s fearsomely cinematic display of solidarity with the doomed makes eloquent historical testimony on their behalf.
The execution took place on May 13 on a large square in Ravenna, occupied by the military so that nobody could not approach the gallows other than the executioners, the soldiers, and the prisoners. The windows and doors of the city and the shops were all closed and many were hung with black. Not a person was seen on the streets. Ravenna seemed transformed into a necropolis. All attempts to convert them were vigorously rejected by the prisoners, who did not want confession nor religious comforters, and protested against the accompaniment of two friars ordered by the Cardinal.** The wagon crossed streets deserted and silent, all surrounded by soldiers on foot and horseback riding at a brisk trot. Arrived at the foot of the gallows, the condemned went down with a firm step, and one by one they boldly climbed the stairs of the gallows, and before the gallows clutching their necks shouted in a voice strong and fearless:
– Viva Italia! Down with the papacy!
The execution was conducted rapidly. I departed with my aide that night under guard, because it was rumored that the conspirators wanted to skin us.
* It appears to me — although it’s not completely clear from what I’ve seen — that a fifth man, a Jewish poisoner named Abramo Isacco Forti (aka “Machino”), was also executed in this group, for collaborating with the carbonari on a different murder. He’s listed on Titta’s roster of victims without date or explanation, but specifically named in, e.g., this Italian book’s roster of death sentences handed out by that same court.
The two of them weren’t connected to one another save in their common support for expelling the British from the Mediterranean island and reuniting it to the Greek mainland. It was a longtime, long-frustrated Hellenic dream.
Great Britain, even while the death penalty was eroding domestically, spurned international appeals for clemency — the Greek government made history by filing the first state-vs.-state petition to the European Commission of Human Rights a few days before the execution — reckoning that its credibility as a hard line against terrorism was at stake.
In Nicosia, where the hangings took place, schools were shuttered, armed paratroopers patrolled streets barred to traffic, and newspapers operated under a censor’s requirement not to inflame the populace.
In Athens, beyond the reach of the crown, the soundness of this policy was unpleasantly confirmed. Seven deaths and hundreds of injuries resulted from the ensuing brickbats with police. (The mayor of Athens personally smashed up a tributary plaque to Queen Elizabeth II.) And in retaliation, the EOKA subsequently executed two British soldiers it had captured, Gordon Hill and Ronnie Shilton … although British skepticism over this claim required an additional statement clarifying the matter.
BOGOTA, Colombia, Tuesday, March 6. — The three men who on Feb. 10 attempted to assassinate Gen. Reyes, the President of the Republic of Colombia, were shot to-day at the spot where the attack took place.
-New York Times, March 8
Reyes had parlayed a successful military career into politics (Spanish link), and was the elected-ish but also dictatorial president of Colombia.
Marco Salgar (left) and Roberto Gonzalez, two of the failed assassins.
He couldn’t make these omelets without breaking a few eggs and his authoritarian power was challenged with at least two coup attempts and multiple assassination plots, as well as a bid by other Colombian territories to break away and join up with Panama.
But the most notorious angry-with-Reyes event was the 10th of February 1906 — also the title (Spanish again) of a book of photographs documenting the incident — when three gunmen ambushed Reyes on the outskirts of Bogota and somehow all managed to miss both the president and his daughter.
Reyes’ vengeance was extrajudicially old-school: the executions he arranged were not permitted under Colombian law at all, and by having them publicly shot at the scene of the crime, he added a downright medieval twist of lese-majeste.
Images from here. These are the three shooters mentioned by the Times, as well as a fourth accomplice.
However rough his methods, Reyes did accomplish some important reforms for his country, and he did have the grace to resign his position in 1909 under fire for financial and diplomatic mismangement. (The man’s five-year administration has its own periodization in Colombian historiography: the quinquenio.) There have been worse entries in the annals of dictatorship.
On this date in 1801, a Jacobin chemist was wrongly executed for Royalists’ plot against Napoleon.
Our scene is France, the year following Napoleon’s coup of 18th Brumaire (November 9, 1799 on the stodgy old Gregorian calendar). Marx’s “first time as tragedy”* saw the Corsican achieve monarch-esque power, and the months ensuing saw a plethora of plots against him.
The ranks of aggrieved potential assassins included both Jacobins, incensed at the military dictatorship, and Bourbons, incensed that it wasn’t their dictatorship — in both cases exacerbated by Napoleon’s decisive battlefield triumphs which consolidated his hold on power.
On Christmas Eve 1800, the man on horseback was a man in a carriage, careening through Paris to catch a performance of Haydn’s oratorio The Creation.
When, all of a sudden, a gigantic explosion on the Rue Saint-Nicaise attempted to un-create the First Consul. It failed, exploding after Napoleon had passed and before Josephine’s family followed, “merely” killing and maiming fifty-some miscellaneous Parisian bystanders instead.
shocked with the wild atrocity of such a reckless plot, became, while they execrated the perpetrators, attached in proportion to the object of their cruelty. A disappointed conspiracy always adds strength to the government against which it is directed; and Buonaparte did not fail to push this advantage to the uttermost.
This “Infernal Machine” had actually been built by disgruntled monarchists at the instigation of intriguer Georges Cadoudal, as was swiftly discerned by Napoleon’s Minister of Police, the ruthless ex-revolutionary Joseph Fouche.
Realpolitik exigencies — Napoleon was trying (unsuccessfully) to reach political terms with the royalist faction — instead drove a rush to pin the detonation on the Jacobins.
Who, it should be said, made themselves the primary suspects by virtue of the fact that they’d also been trying to blow up Napoleon. Chevalier had been arrested a couple of months before when a bomb of his, evidently an experiment for a similar Jacobin plot, loudly blew up near Salpetriere.
Four other Jacobins followed Chevalier to death later in January (and two royalists actually involved in the bomb got the same treatment). Some 130 other prominent Jacobins (French link) were expelled on Napoleon’s say-so — no legislative consultation — to the empire’s far-flung colonies, pretty much putting the remains of the long-supine revolutionary left permanently out of the picture as a political force.
On this date in 1964, South Vietnam executed a 17-year-old Communist for a plot to assassinate American Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.
The young electrical worker and Viet Cong urban guerrilla Nguyen Van Troi was nabbed in the spring of 1963 trying to off both McNamara, famous for the megatonnage he would bestow on Southeast Asia, and U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge, Jr.
(Later, when the South Vietnamese client president whose guests these men ostensibly were was being shot in an armored personnel carrier with the Americans’ blessing, Ngo Dinh Diem might have had cause to wish this youth’s inhospitable gesture had not been undone by his men. Lodge was a particularly vocal advocate in the Kennedy administration for overthrowing Diem.)
For the months leading up to his public shooting, he became an international cause celebre; North Vietnam would later milk his martyrdom with a postage stamp, an award, and numerous public streets.
The international reach of his case was underscored when a Venezuelan revolutionary cell kidnapped an American officer shortly before Troi’s execution, and threatened to shoot him in retaliation. (They didn’t.)
Against this, South Vietnam counterposed the unedifying spectacle of a 17-year-old patriot put to death, energetically declaiming at the stake while cameras rolled,
It is the Americans who have committed aggression on our country, it is they who have been killing our people with planes and bombs…. I have never acted against the will of my people. It is against the Americans that I have taken action.
Naturally, he became a worldwide leftist martyr. There’s an Estadio Nguyen Van Troi in Cuba; American actor Troy Garity, son of Jane Fonda from her “Hanoi Jane” days, is also named for Nguyen Van Troi.
Robert McNamara, meanwhile, had many, many years yet to live, and many, many more Vietnamese deaths to burden his conscience.Troi’s widow wrote a 1965 book about him, out of print but still available on the used book market.
Just what his beef with national unifier Toyotomi Hideyoshi might have been is also subject to the exigencies of the story at hand. Let it be oppression or something, good enough for one of those classic outlaw-with-a-heart-of-gold retorts against condemnation for his thieving career.
It is you who are the robber who stole the whole country!
He gets to be the title character of the 2009 film Goemon:
Thanks to the inevitable marketing tie-ins, the world also has a Goemon action figure.
Personally, and especially because I would lose all these nifty accessories, I much prefer the adorable Goemon Cosbaby series.
* As a result of this famous exit, a Goeomon-buro (Goemon bath) in Japanese refers to a large iron kettle-shaped bathtub.
On this date in 1894, on the very day that anarchist terrorist par excellenceEmile Henry was guillotined in Paris, six more anarchists were executed by firing squad outside Barcelona’s Montjuich Fortress.
Mariano Cerezuela, Bernat Siveval, Jaime Sogas, Jose Codina, Villarubbia, and Manuel Archs were condemned just weeks prior by a military court for complicity in the attempted assassination earlier that year of Spanish Marshal Arsenio Martinez Campos. Some had originally been rounded up in the general anti-anarchist crackdown after the bombing of the Liceu theater … although another man would be put to death for authoring that crime later in 1894.
Only one of their number, Sogas, died penitent.
In the report of the London Times (May 22, 1894),
[t]he condemned men were conveyed from the chapel, where they had spent the night, to the place of execution by an underground passage, the first two to appear being Sogas and Cerezuela. The former, who confessed last night, joined in the prayers offered by the priest, and he and Cerezuela walked quietly to their doom. The other prisoners, however, shouted all kinds of revolutionary cries. The convicts were placed in line, and at the first shot they all fell to the ground. It was found, however, that in the case of Sogas and Codina the bullets had not taken effect, and a second shot was necessary.