Posts filed under 'Power'

1676: Matoonas, a Nipmuc shot on Boston Common

Add comment July 27th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1676, an indigenous Nipmuc named Matoonas was marched into Boston, condemned by a summary judicial proceeding, and immediately shot on Boston Common.

Though he was a so-called “Jesus Indian” — a converted Christian — Matoonas had become a principal adversary of the European colonists once long-building tensions exploded into King Philip’s War.

To the communal grievances that made up this war, Matoonas brought a very personal injury: back in 1671, his son Nehemiah had been accused by English colonists of murder and executed on that basis. And not just executed, but his rotting head set up on a pike at the gallows, to really rub it in.

Matoonas bided his time, but joined King Philip (Metacomet) with gusto. On July 14, 1675, Nipmuc warriors under his command raided the town of Mendon, Massachusetts, leaving five dead — the very first Anglo casualties of the war.

“A dark cloud of anxiety and fear now settled down upon the place,” a bicentennial a Rev. Carlton Staples recalled in a bicentennial address on Mendon’s history 1867. “With tears and lamentations they tenderly gathered the bodies of the slain and laid them away in some pleasant spot, we know not where. The houses and farms remote from this central point were abandoned, and the people fled to other places, or gathered here to save their flocks and growing crops. All sense of security was gone. They only dared to go abroad in companies. While some worked in the fields and gardens, others watched for the lurking foe.” A few months later, the settlers had to abandon Mendon altogether, and the Nipmuc burned the ghost town to the ground.

But the tide of the war soon turned against the natives, and Matoonas would find that he had his own lurking foe.

Sagamore John comes in, brings Mattoonus and his sonne prisoner. Mattoonus shot to death the same day by John’s men.

-diary of Samuel Sewall

A mysterious Nipmuc leader known as Sagamore John (“Sagamore” designates a sachem or chief) betrayed Matoonas in exchange for a pardon from the Massachusetts colony, marching Matoonas and his son right into Boston on the 27th of July.

After an improvised tribunal set down the inevitable punishment, Matoonas was lashed to a tree on Boston Common. Sagamore John himself performed the execution himself — although whether he volunteered or “volunteered” is not quite clear. The late Nipmuc raider’s head, too, was set on a pole — just opposite Nehemiah’s.


Memorial to Sagamore John in Medford, Mass. (cc) image from David Bruce.

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995: Tormod Kark

1 comment July 16th, 2015 dogboy

On an unrecorded date in 995, Norwegian slave Tormod Kark became the first person beheaded under King Olaf I of Norway.

A subsidiary character in a long and brutal struggle for supremacy in Norway and its neighbors to the east and west, Kark had betrayed his lord, the de facto Norweigan ruler Haakon Jarl (“Earl Haakon”), as Olaf Tryggvason’s army searched for him. Haakon had holed up on a farm with Kark and at least one other trusted associate, but when Kark heard of the reward for Haakon’s, he thought it more opportune to kill his lord than to wait to be found.

Kark expected cake. Instead, King Olaf I abhorred his disloyalty and delivered him death.

Olaf grew up a refugee in the court of Kiev Rus’ ruler Vladimir the Great, who, according to some early sagas, had a Norse wife. Regardless of the circumstances, Olaf’s military prowess was such that Vladimir eventually became distrustful of a potentially dangerous guest and Olaf decided to take his leave.

Making his way back to Norway, Olaf married for the first time. When his wife died, he took sail down to the Scilly Isles (south of England), where he converted to Christianity. He then moved to England (Norsemen held sway there at this time). During his time there, he caught wind of Haakon Jarl waning hold on the affections of Norwegians high and low.

Olaf jumped at the chance. He quickly formed an alliance with several local leaders and sallied forth, and practically from the time he hit the fjords, Haakon was a fugitive.

Haakon Jarl — a.k.a. Haakon Sigurdsson — was an old friend of Harald Bluetooth,* the man credited with uniting Norway and Denmark. Haakon’s father was killed by Harald Greycloak, and Bluetooth enlisted Haakon to avenge that death. (He did so, with aplomb.)

With Greycloak out of the way, Bluetooth had solidified his position as effective ruler of Norway, where he installed Haakon — now elevated to Earl Haakon — as his vassal king. Haakon Jarl had wide latitude to subjugate the lands around him. As vassal, though, Haakon was called on by Bluetooth to fight the Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, who had made an alliance with Olaf’s father-in-law in an effort to overrun the still-pagan Norse.

Bluetooth et al fought them off initially, but Otto II sent a fleet around to Jutland and bested the Danes and Norwegians. As a result, Haakon, Harald, and their armies were forcibly converted to Christianity.

Unwillingly as he had adopted it, Bluetooth maintained his new Christianity; Haakon Jarl didn’t really go in for that Jesus stuff and stubbornly held to his paganism. When Bluetooth** approached Haakon about really really converting around 977, the Jarl refused to accept the Christian faith, instead taking his Norway and going home. Haakon thereafter ruled on his own for almost 20 years.

Ultimately, it may have partially been paganism that defeated the Jarl, who was never crowned king: Haakon’s enemies cited his distrust of Christianity as a motivator in the initial agitations against him. That may just be spin, too, since Olaf was so adamantly Christian that he insisted those under his rule convert.† And heavenly imprimaturs tend to be a hot commodity for usurpers.

Regardless of the cause, by 995 Haakon Jarl was beheaded by his slave, his slave was beheaded by the king, and King Olaf I sat on the throne of Norway.

And then five years later, Haakon Jarl’s sons deposed King Olaf.

Olaf summoned the people together out in the yard, and standing on the rock which was beside the swine-sty spake unto them, and the words that he uttered were that he would reward with riches and honour the man who would work mischief to Earl Hakon. This speech was heard both by the Earl and Kark. Now by them in the sty had they a light there with them, and the Earl said: ‘Why art thou so pale, yet withal as black as earth? Is it in thy heart, Kark, that thou shouldst betray me?’ ‘Nay,’ said Kark, ‘we two were born on the self-same night, and long space will there not be twixt the hour of our deaths.’ Towards evening went King Olaf away, & when it was night Kark slept, and the Earl kept watch, but Kark was troubled in his sleep. Then the Earl awakened him & asked him whereof he dreamt, and he said: ‘I was now even at Ladir, and Olaf Tryggvason placed a gold ornament about my neck.’ The Earl answered: ‘A blood-red ring will it be that Olaf Tryggvason will lay about thy neck, shouldst thou meet with him. Beware now, and betray me not, & thou shalt be treated well by me as heretofore.’ Then stay they both sleepless each watching the other, as it might be, but nigh daybreak fell the Earl asleep and was troubled at once, so troubled that he drew his heels up under him & his head likewise under him, and made as though he would rise up, calling aloud and in a fearsome way. Then grew Kark afeard & filled with horror, so it came to pass that he drew a large knife from his belt and plunged it into the throat of the Earl cutting him from ear to ear. Thus was encompassed the death of Earl Hakon. Then cut Kark off the head of the Earl and hasted him away with it, and the day following came he with it to Ladir unto King Olaf, and there told he him all that had befallen them on their flight, as hath already been set forth. Afterwards King Olaf let Kark be taken away thence, & his head be sundered from his trunk.

Thereafter to Nidarholm went King Olaf and likewise went many of the peasantry, and with them bare they the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. In those days it was the custom to use this island as a place whereon might be slain thieves & criminals, and on it stood a gallows. And the King caused that on this gallows should be exposed the heads of Earl Hakon and Kark. Then went thither the whole of the host, and shouted up at them and cast stones, and said that they went to hell each in goodly company, ever one rascal with another. Thereafter did they send men up to Gaulardal, & after they had dragged thence the body of Earl Hakon did they burn it. So great strength was there now in the enmity that was borne against Earl Hakon by the folk that were of Throndhjem that no one durst breathe his name save as the ‘bad Earl,’ and for long afterwards was he called after this fashion. Nevertheless it is but justice to bear testimony of Earl Hakon that he was well worthy to be a chief, firstly by the lineage whereof he was descended, then for his wisdom and the insight with which he used the power that pertained to him, his boldness in battle, and withal his goodhap in gaining victories and slaying his foemen. Thus saith Thorleif Raudfelldarson:

Hakon! no Earl more glorious ‘neath the moon’s highway:
In strife and battle hath the warrior honour won,
Chieftains mine to Odin hast thou sent,
(Food for ravens were their corses)
Therefore wide be thy rule!’

-The Saga of Olaf Tryggvason


* Bluetooth is, indeed, the namesake of the protocol that wirelessly unites mobile devices and computers. Scandanavian companies made it, so they gave it both a historically interesting name and a historically symbolic ligature logo (representing the “H” and “B”).

** Bluetooth’s daughter, Thyra or Tyra or Thyri, eventually became a consort to King Olaf I.

† Olaf I became known for his … er … creative executions for heathens.

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1584: Francis Throckmorton, plotter

Add comment July 10th, 2015 Headsman

Francis Throckmorton (Throgmorton), was executed at Tyburn on this date in 1584 for his plot to make Mary, Queen of Scots the Queen of England, too.

The son of a prominent Warwickshire family — his father’s monumental tomb still adorns the church at Coughton, while London’s Throgmorton Street is named for our guy’s uncle NicholasFrancis was a staunch Catholic who as a 20-something man on the make did a continental tour where he huddled with papist exiles cogitating how to win England back for the faith.

Naturally many a plot centered on the Catholic Queen of Scotland Mary, who as Henry VIII’s great-niece stood well within the scope of consanguinity necessary to rule England with legitimacy. (Mary’s son James VI of Scotland and James I of England would do justice that.)

On his return to London in 1583, the subtle agents of Elizabeth’s spymaster Francis Walsingham sniffed out his project to establish a line of communication from Mary to the Duke of Guise who contemplated a pro-Mary invasion.

“I have seen as resolute men as Throckmorton stoop, notwithstanding the great shew he hath made of a Roman resolution,” Walsingham prophesied of the obdurate young man whose fidelity to his project was to be tested by torture in the Tower. “I suppose the grief of the last torture will suffice, without anye extremity of racking, to make him more comformable than he hath hitherto showed himself.”

Indeed Throckmorton did succumb.

The ensuing bust-up of his plot forms a station on Queen Mary’s own path to Calvary: the treasonable design empowered Walsingham successfully to impel creation of the Bond of Association, a sort of legal pledge to execute anyone who attempted to usurp Elizabeth. That “bond” was called in two years later by Mary’s connection to the Babington Plot, leading directly to the Scots queen’s own trial and execution.

* Throckmorton’s plot also resulted in the expulsion of Spanish ambassador Bernardino de Mendoza, an energetic spy for the Catholics’ overseas allies.

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1949: Antoun Saadeh

Add comment July 8th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1949, Lebanese writer and political leader Antoun Saadeh was shot following a failed coup by his Syrian Social Nationalist Party.

Born to a globetrotting journalist, the young polyglot Saadeh was living abroad in Brazil when his native Lebanon fell from the collapsing Ottoman Empire into French hands.

He returned in 1930 to Lebanon an irredentist on the make and churned out a prodigious literary output: fiction, newspaper stories, political pamphlets.

It was his vision for a “Greater Syria” that would define the man’s legacy, and cause his death. In 1932 he secretly founded the Syrian Social Nationalist Party to advocate for a vast Syrian state encompassing what now comprise Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, and Israel/Palestine. At its most ambitious this prospective state dreamt itself inscribed upon the whole Fertile Crescent from the Tauras Mountains to the Persian Gulf.

The SSNP still exists in Syria and Lebanon to this day, but it was a big cheese in the French Mandate by the late 1930s — when the imminent end of colonialism put the future shape of the entire region into question. Saadeh, harried by French authorities who had clapped him in prison a couple of times, emigrated to Argentina and carried on the struggle through exile publications.

In 1947, Saadeh returned to a rapturous reception in now-independent Lebanon:

But his pan-Syria idea was distinctly at odds with what had happened on the ground. Whatever the colonial roots of the borders that had been set down, they defined not only zones on a map but elites with an interest in their maintenance. Lebanon’s founding “National Pact” arrangement among Christians and Muslims also committed all involved to Lebanon as an independent state not to merge with Syria.

So despite (or rather because of) Saadeh’s popularity, the SSNP faced renewed crackdowns in 1948. Revolutionaries, reformers, and pan-Arabist types were surging throughout the region thanks to the distressingly shabby performance of Arab armies in their 1948 war to strangle Israel in its crib. (Lebanon fielded only a tiny force in this fight which also won no laurels; instead, Israel began its long tradition of occupying southern Lebanon.) Saadeh was certainly alarmed by the birth of a Zionist state so inimical to his own programme; “Our struggle with the enemy is not a struggle for borders but for existence,” he declared in 1948.

On July 4, 1949, the SSNP put its muscle to the test by attempting to seize state power in Lebanon — and disastrously failed. Saadeh had traveled to Damascus hoping to gain the support of the Syrian military dictator Husni al-Za’im;* instead, al-Za’im simply handed Saadeh right back to Lebanese authorities who had him tried in secret and swiftly executed.

* A gentleman who would himself be overthrown and executed just a few weeks hence.

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1865: Okada Izo, barbarian-expeller

Add comment July 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1865, the Japanese samurai Okada Izo was dispatched by crucifixion.

He was one of* the “Four Hitokirimanslayers — whose legendary blades coruscated in the Bakumatsu era that marked Japan’s pivot from an isolationist feudal state, one where samurai were big men on prefectures, to a burgeoning modern power ruled by industry and mass conscription.

The irony was that dinosaurs like the Hitokiri helped bring the asteroid down on their own heads.

During the chaotic Bakumatsu period, triggered by Japan’s becoming involuntarily opened to the outside world, the emperor — long a figurehead marginalized by the shogun — entered the political fray under the xenophobic banner “revere the emperor, expel the barbarians.”

Warriors/assassins like the Hitokiri were wooed by the imperial camp and the promise of a policy that would maintain the purpose and privilege of elite swordsmen. But once power was conquered, the Meiji emperor repaid those knights’ exertions by doing the modernization thing that Hitokiri types had hoped to avoid.

Okada Izo was among the first barbarian-expellers to be caught up by the policy swing. After a couple of years running amok in Kyoto, the anti-foreigner movement was suppressed and its leader forced to commit seppuku, which was still more deference than Izo received.

The execution, usually conceived as the end, is the jumping-off point for the surreal time-and-space-hopping 2004 Takasha Miike bloodbath Izo, “one of the most difficult works of art to be made in recent times.”

* Along with fellow-execution victim Kawakami Gensai, and two other guys who met violent deaths that were not (more’s the pity for this site) executions.

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1921: Richard and Abraham Pearson, the Coolacrease killings

2 comments June 30th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1921, an Irish Republican Army detail detained Richard and Abraham Pearson at their farm in rural County Offaly.

While the Pearson brothers watched in horror along with their mother, three sisters, and other family members, the Republicans readied the kindling to fire the family house. Then, Richard and Abraham were executed by an IRA firing detail.

The shooters were inexperienced as executioners and nobody delivered a coup de grace, so the Pearson brothers took hours to bleed to death from their assortment of debilitating torso wounds; Abraham did not expire until the next morning, some 14 hours later.

It might perhaps be said that few places exemplify like Ireland after its dirty war of independence Faulkner’s bromide that the past is never dead, and it’s not even past.

The Irish network RTE exhumed these once-past Killings at Coolacrease in a 2007 broadcast —

— claiming that the evangelical Protestant Pearsons were essentially targeted by neighboring Catholics on grounds of sectarian bigotry and/or an interest in pinching their 341 acres. (The surviving Pearsons emigrated to Australia and their land was indeed broken up and distributed.)

This line, whose upshot obviously impugns Irish Republicanism, occasioned a furious counterattack from that sector arguing that the Pearsons were punished for a much more prosaic reason: that they had shot at and wounded IRA volunteers who were setting up a roadblock by cutting down trees at the perimeter of the Pearson farm.

The family patriarch, William Pearson, was away at the time and later filed for compensation from London, noting that “I was always known as a staunch Loyalist and upholder of the Crown. I assisted the Crown Forces on every occasion, and I helped those who were persecuted around me at all times.” “Crown Forces” in this instance would have been the hated paramilitaries, the Black and Tans, who pack their own upshots.

Extrajudicial executions might perhaps rate among the inevitable casualties of a tooth-and-claw war over the nation’s destiny, but so too are the clash of interpretive meanings given them by later generations. Even eighty-odd years later, the urgent need to confute RTE’s “revisionist” gloss on the Pearson executions led almost immediately to a book of essays by Republican historians.

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1483: Anthony Woodville, Earl Rivers

1 comment June 25th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1483, Anthony Woodville, 2nd Earl Rivers, was beheaded with his nephew Sir Richard Grey and royal chamberlain Sir Thomas Vaughan at Pontefract Castle.*

These noble heads rolled a bare 10 weeks after the death of King Edward IV to whom Woodville was certainly quite loyal: the Earl’s sister, Elizabeth Woodville, was Edward’s queen Consort.

This marked the acme of the family’s meteoric, single-generation rise from gentleman nobodies. Anthony’s dad, Richard Woodville, vaulted the family into the nobility with an illicit marriage to the Duke of Bedford’s widow. Their pretty daughter Elizabeth scandalized Britain’s elite by conquering Edward’s heart and his hand in 1464 — though this was her second marriage: the first, to Sir John Grey of Groby, had produced two children, one of whom was the Richard Grey who went to the block with Sir Anthony Woodville.

But while heads were still attached to shoulders, Woodville employed his in literary pursuits: he’s credited with publishing (via the pioneering English printer William Caxton) some of the very first books in English: Earl Rivers’s own translation into “right good and fayr Englyssh” of Jean Mielot‘s Cordyale, or Four last thinges (image); and, the 1477 Dictes and Sayings of the Philosophers, another Rivers translation that he knocked out while on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. It’s distinguished as the first English printed book that dates itself (November 18, 1477).


Earl Rivers presents Edward IV with the fruits of movable type.

But for sure, circa Regna tonat — especially here during the long-running War of the Roses for control of the English throne.

The reason that Anthony Woodville and not his father was the current Earl Rivers was because dad had his own head cut off when King Edward was temporarily deposed in 1469. (Exile to Bruges was also the reason that the second Earl Rivers met William Caxton.)

After Edward came roaring back at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471, the Woodville family would have been feeling pretty well set up: their Yorkist faction seemed to have won as decisive a victory as could be imagined over the Lancastrians.

But King Edward’s early death meant that Anthony’s nephew Edward V inherited all too early — which is to say that he did not truly inherit at all. The 12-year-old Edward and his younger brother Richard, Duke of York, both of them children of Elizabeth Woodville, were the boy-princes left to the care of Edward IV’s brother Richard, Duke of Gloucester.

Now, they believe it; and withal whet me
To be revenged on Rivers, Vaughan, Grey:
But then I sigh; and, with a piece of scripture,
Tell them that God bids us do good for evil:
And thus I clothe my naked villany
With old odd ends stolen out of holy writ;
And seem a saint, when most I play the devil.

-Shakespeare’s Richard III, Act 1, Scene 3

The next part of the story is quite notorious, and it directly concerns the Woodvilles: the reason that Richard infamously disappeared those tragic princes into the Tower of London was because they were in Elizabeth Woodville’s own custody — and Richard, soon to seize power for himself as King Richard III, feared that if given the opportunity to gather themselves the Woodvilles and not he would dominate English politics.

Events could easily have turned out differently — even with Richard on the blade end of the Woodvilles’ executioner. In the chaotic days following Edward’s death, as news made its way ponderously around the realm, Richard raced to get ahead of the Woodvilles before they were secure in their patrimony. On April 30 of 1483, Richard intercepted the royal party traveling to London and took king into custody along with Rivers, Thomas Vaughan, and Richard Grey.

Gloucester-cum-Richard III acted with dispatch from that point. He had Elizabeth Woodville’s marriage to the late king invalidated, effectively disinheriting her children. While Gloucester made ready for his coronation, Anthony Woodville and his friends made sad poetry and last wills and testaments.

Glories are fleeting. Two years later, Richard III was unhorsed, too.

“I dye in right, beware you dye not in wrong.”

-Purported last words of Sir Thomas Vaughan

* There are some citations equivocating on Vaughan’s precise death-date. Yet another man, Sir Richard Haute (Hawte) is also sometimes numbered a fourth in the doomed party; however, a man of this name took part in Buckingham’s Rebellion against King Richard III, and received a pardon in 1485.

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1718: Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich condemned and fatally knouted

1 comment June 24th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.

Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.

The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.

Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.

Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.

Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.

The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.

“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.

Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.

Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.

Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.


Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)

Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”

Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.

The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.

And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.

Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.

“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.

Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.

Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.

And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.

This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?

Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.

He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.

Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)

Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.

Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.

What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.

On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.

But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.

By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.

Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.

Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.

* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.

** Ancestor of the novelist Leo Tolstoy, a man who did not like executions.

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2014: Thirteen Xinjiang terrorists

Add comment June 16th, 2015 Headsman

One year ago today, China executed as terrorists 13 separatist militants.

According to Xinhua, the 13 were condemned in 7 different cases from Aksu, Turpan and Hotan — all prefectures of the western Xinjiang region.


Xinjiang. By TUBS [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Muslim Uighurs comprise a near-majority of that province’s population, and although Xinjiang is formally an “autonomous region” many Uighurs find it not nearly autonomous enough. Going tension has fomented a separatist movement that has appeared to gain strength — or at least visibility — during the past decade, including multiple spectacular and deadly terrorist attacks as well as several riots.

“The execution of criminals involved in terrorist attacks and violent crimes answers the calls of all ethnic groups, deters criminal activities, and demonstrates the resolve of the Communist Party of China and the government in cracking down on terrorism,” a Chinese court spokesman said, speaking of three of this date’s condemned who were sentenced together for a series of attacks in Lukqun (Turpan prefecture) that slew 24 police officers.

The executions on this day were surely coordinated for their demonstrative effect, days after Chinese authorities announced a “one-year crackdown” in Xinjiang one day after two SUVs bombed a market in Ürümqi, killing 43 people and injuring over 90 others.

Notwithstanding China’s strenuous attempt to frame the “crackdown” as one targeting only terrorists, security measures have bled insensibly into a crackdown on Muslims, targeting conservative Islamic cultural markers like veiled faces. It’s a sure bet that we haven’t heard the last of this flashpoint.

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1662: Sir Henry Vane, Commonwealth parliamentarian

3 comments June 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1662, Parliamentarian Sir Henry Vane the Younger was beheaded on Tower Hill for his service of Oliver Cromwell‘s Protectorate.

Adopting Puritan beliefs to the irritation of his politically connected father,* Vane emigrated to that sect’s Massachusetts colony and was elected governor at the ripe old age of 23, backed by the faction forming around religious dissident Anne Hutchinson.

He served for less than a year before the anti-Hutchinson side took the office from him and he, Vane, sailed for the mother country — but even in his short tenure the young gentleman left a mark in New England sufficient for a statue in the Boston Public Library:

  • He was “an instrument in the hand of God for procuring” Rhode Island from Indians;
  • He signed the legislation creating the “New College” eventually to become Harvard;
  • And, he launched the Pequot War

Back in Old England, the Young Vane’s energy served the Roundheads well during the English Civil War. Though never a soldier, he rose to the Republicans’ statum of political leadership, and moved the money and legislation that loosed Cromwell’s armies.

Vane served on the Parliament’s wartime military counsel, the Committee of Safety and — after Vane himself played a crucial diplomatic role bringing the Scots into the fight** — on its successor body, the Committee of Both Kingdoms. Vane’s experience in the New World also gave him a bent for religious liberty that was unusually staunch for his time, and made him a key figure of the church “Independents”, one of the Interregnum’s dominant factions.

John Milton, the great literary champion of the Commonwealth, celebrated Vane in verse (1652):

VANE, young in years, but in sage counsel old,
Than whom a better senator ne’er held
The helm of Rome, when gowns, not arms, repelled
he fierce Epirot and the African bold,
Whether to settle peace, or to unfold
The drift of hollow states hard to be spelled;
Then to advise how war may best, upheld,
Move by her two main nerves, iron and gold,
In all her equipage; besides, to know;
Both spiritual power and civil, what each means,
What severs each, thou hast learned, which few have done.
he bounds of either sword to thee we owe:
Therefore on thy firm hand Religion leans
In peace, and reckons thee her eldest son.

Vane’s sage counsel — and what he would later describe as “my tenderness of blood”† — made him unwilling to participate in the execution of King Charles: it was as a spectator and not an M.P. that he watched Parliament try the deposed sovereign. But whatever his scruples on regicide he remained an enthusiastic legate of the state and wheeler-dealer of the Rump Parliament.

This parliament had an active‡ four-year run. Few were more active in it than Vane, one of its leading figures until the very day Oliver Cromwell forcibly dissolved the body — an act, Vane protested, “against morality and common sense,” prompting the exasperated Lord Protector to sputter, “Sir Harry Vane, sir Harry Vane — the Lord deliver me from sir Harry Vane!” Vane, aware that the increasingly disaffected army might strike Parliament at any time, had before Cromwell’s intervention been attempting to enact electoral legislation whose intended correction of misrepresentative parliamentary allotments anticipated the Great Reform Act by 180 years.

After April 20 1653, Vane’s political career was essentially done bar a momentary recrudescence when the old Rump Parliament was briefly retrieved from mothballs after Cromwell’s death. He diverted himself with the retired statesman’s traditional amusement, the creation of manifestos.

He might have been better served to resume his association with the colonies. When the Stuarts returned in 1660, and notwithstanding our man’s distaste for the regicide, Vane was exempted by name from the amnesty of the Indemnity and Oblivion Act.

His was a close case; the “Convention Parliament” tasked with re-inviting the exiled king initially sought, and Charles granted, clemency for Vane. But the successor “Cavalier Parliament”, more ultra-royalist than its antecedent, decided it had not had done with Sir Henry Vane the Younger, who had not allowed house arrest to deter him from continuing to pop off on the political primacy of Parliament and the validity of the late beheaded ex-king’s overthrow. In his pamphlet “The People’s Case Stated”, Vane avers,

The Coercive, or, Executive Power is placed in one Person, under the Name and Style of a King, to be put forth not by his own, single, personal command, but by the signification of his Will and Pleasure, as the Will of the whole State, in and by his Courts and Justice, and stated publick Councils and Judicatures, agreed on for that purpose, between him and his People, in their Parliamentary Assemblies.

The Will of the whole State, thus signified, the law itself prefers before the personal Will of the King, in distinction from the law, and makes the one binding, the other not.

This idea had legs, even though Charles I (“a subject and a sovereign are clean different things”) had given his head to reject it. The Cavalier Parliament made him answer charges of treason “for compassing the death of King Charles the 2nd, and intending to change the kingly government of this nation”: like most such cases, the verdict was ordained by the charge, no matter how eloquently Vane sustained himself.

He was granted the gentleman’s favor of beheading rather than the drawing-and-quartering torture that true regicides endured.

Rightly anticipating that the Will of the King would not permit him to address the crowd from the scaffold — a battery of drummers and trumpeters repeatedly interrupted his intended address, and finally the sheriff tore the notes from Vane’s hands§ — Vane had wisely given to friends some copies of the speech he intended to deliver. They saw it posthumously published.

There are freely available public-domain biographies of Henry Vane here, here, and here.

* Vane’s father, Henry the Elder, was noted among other things for the damning evidence given against the Earl of Strafford by Henry the Elder’s personal notes, which were communicated to Strafford’s enemies by Henry the Younger and proved instrumental in causing Strafford’s execution. Upon attaining that Earldom, Strafford “would needs in that patent have a new creation of a barony, and was made baron of Raby, a house belonging to sir Henry Vane, and an honour he made account should belong to him too; which was an act of the most unnecessary provocation (though he contemned the man with marvellous scorn) that I have known, and I believe was the loss of his head.”

** The “Solemn League and Covenant” that in the 1640s sealed the alliance between English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians with an (apparent) pledge to privilege Presbyterianism on the entire island, north and south. Cromwell failed to do this after the Civil War, driving Presbyterians into the arms of the royalists; then, Charles II also failed to do it after the Restoration, driving the truest believers to embrace martyrdom. It was the Solemn League and Covenant that gave these martyrs their appellation: the Covenanters.

† In a parliamentary speech that nevertheless vindicates the regicide: “If you be not now satisfied with this business, you will put a strange construction upon that action, and upon all that has been done by the generals and soldiers. If you, here, will now doubt this right to be in you, you draw the guilt upon the body of the whole nation … It will be questioned whether that was an act of justice or murder.”

“If you be minded to resort to the old government, you are not too many steps from the old family,” Vane presciently observed in this same address for the benefit of those who still pined for a return to monarchy. “They will be too hard for you, if that government be restored.

‡ One product of the Rump Parliament of interest for these pages was the Adultery Act of 1650: “in case any married woman shall … be carnally known by any man (other them her Husband) (except in Case of Ravishment) and of such offence or offences shall be convicted as aforesaid by confession or otherwise, every such Offence and Offences shall be and is hereby adjudged Felony: and every person, as well the man as the woman, offending therein, and confessing the same, or being thereof convicted by verdict upon Indictment or Presentment as aforesaid, shall suffer death as in case of Felony, without benefit of Clergy.”

§ Vane handled his executioners’ “very indecent” nastiness with such grace that Bishop Gilbert Burnet later remarked that “it was generally thought, the government had lost more than it had gained by his death.”

Indeed, Burnet wrote, this had become true of executing regicides in general.

tho’ the Regicides were at that time odious beyond all expression, and the trials and executions of the first that suffered were run to by vast crouds, and all people seemed pleased with the sight, yet the odiousness of the crime grew at last to be so much flatten’d by the frequent executions, and most of those who suffered dying with much firmness and shew of piety, justifying all they had done, not without a seeming joy for their suffering on that account, that the King was advised not to proceed farther.

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