Posts filed under 'Political Expedience'

2013: Alireza Mafiha and Mohammad Ali Sorouri, viral video stars

Add comment January 20th, 2014 Headsman

A 37-second security camera clip of a Tehran being mugged by machete-wielding assailants went viral to great outrage in Iran in December 2012, and resulted in the very speedy execution on January 20, 2013, of the culprits.

Alireza Mafiha and Mohammad Ali Sorouri were publicly hanged at a still-dark 6:30 a.m. before a crowd of about 300 people for Moharebeh (waging war against God)

There’s a photo series of the execution here.

Two other accomplices (the video captures four assailants in all) received 10 years in prison and 74 lashes.

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1909: The Pollet gang, breaking the French moratorium

Add comment January 11th, 2014 Headsman

Warning: Graphic severed head pictures await at the bottom of this post.

On this date in 1911, the guillotine returned France after an absence of more than three years.

The sitting president was a staunch death penalty opponent and had blocked all executions since his term began in 1906. That was about the same span of time that the Pollet gang had, in the words of a New York Times wire report,* “infested the Belgian-French frontier, robbing churches, houses, and inns, holding up stage coaches and belated travelers, and torturing and slaying their victims according to the old piratical adage that dead men tell no tales.”

Abel Pollet had been a smuggler who put his native gift for leadership to good use organizing his fellow traffickers into a more lucratively violent line of work. Thanks, presumably, to the syndicate’s pre-existing professional aptitude for evasion, it persisted for years and authored a quantity of robberies and murders that authorities could only guess at. (The official homicide estimation ran north of 50.) It was a spree so atrocious that it helped force the end of the whole death penalty moratorium since sentiment was so strong against the Hazebrouck gang .

Incited by the many depredations and perhaps starved from years without the bloody spectacle of public execution, a vast concourse of 30,000 mobbed the guillotine at Bethune.

“At midnight there were 2,000 watchers in the square,” one report ran. “The main street of the town was crowded as on the eve of a fete. Soon after midnight men brought ladders and benches to the square and mounted them to obtain an uninterrupted view. Others climbed into the branches of trees, where their presence was revealed by the glow of cigarettes and pipes in the dark among the branches.”

Undeterred by the steady winter’s drizzle, they would wait all the night through, their numbers continually augmented as road-trippers arrived by train.

At four in the morning the dread traveling executioner Anton Diebler, who had already plied this trade for a generation and more and would continue in the role for another 30 years, arrived with four assistants to set up the guillotine. It was only with difficulty that police restrained the pawing mob.

By half-past five the public prosecutor officially informed the condemned men what they surely already knew — that there would be no mercy. The crowd on the square would have its prey.

As the first robber, Theophile Deroo, emerged at 7:25 a.m., “there was a painful silence, and then an outbreak of hoots and curses from the crowd.” A wilting Deroo had to be hustled to the board amid the jeers. “A mort! A mort!” came the howls.

Three times in the next eight minutes the executioners furiously scrubbed the apparatus clean while guards (per the Times) “held the crowd back with main force.”

Canut Vromant followed coolly; Auguste Pollet was third, fighting and shouting. His brother, the leader Abel Pollet, went under a rain of curses that he answered with the words “Down with the priests! Long live the Republic!”

People are ghoulish. Far be it from us to deny them.


Top: the heads of the Pollet brothers. Middle: The heads of their two accomplices. Bottom: Canut Vromant’s headless trunk awaits autopsy. All images from the invaluable Bois de Justice, via this goregrish forum.


After the quadruple executions, the heads are cleaned up. (Source)

Perhaps, dear reader, you find the public exhibition of these severed heads objectionable. If so, you have an ally in the French state that did the severing.

For years, French elites had been fretting the indecorous behavior of the crowd at what was supposed to be a solemn occasion. The advent of photography only made matters worse, for now the discomfiting head-chopping exercise could be shared with those indisposed to sitting up all night smoking pipes in trees.

But as the moratorium gave way, the rising media form of cinema promised even more debased exhibitions. Enterprising cinematographers were already staging execution re-creations; now there was the prospect for film audiences to be incited to countless bloodlust frenzies by on-the-scene deathporn footage of hated criminals going under the blade. It was in response to just this fear that France a bit later in 1909 promulgated (French link) its first film censorship rules — forbidding in this case the public display of film liable to disturb the public tranquility.

* Jan. 16, 1909 … under the excited headline “THIRST FOR BLOOD AMONG THE FRENCH”,

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1480: Cicco Simonetta

Add comment October 30th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1480, Francesco Simonetta — known as Cicco to his contemporaries — was beheaded at the Castello of Pavia.

Simonetta (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was your basic 15th century polyglot Italian humanist, whose aptitude saw him into the service of the condottiero Francesco Sforza.

Simonetta’s honors and appointments multiplied as Sforza’s reach expanded; when Sforza died, and then Sforza’s heir was assassinated, a 7-year-old became Duke of Milan.

The late 1470s saw a bitter power struggle during the child duke’s minority for effective control of the state: on the one hand, the boy’s uncle Ludovico; on the other, the boy’s mother Bona of Savoy. Simonetta was the able minister of state for Bona, and his faction briefly prevailed and saw Ludovico into exile.

Simonetta had put several years of hustle into balancing the political factions that kept Bona — and via Bona, himself — in control. Alas for their cause, Bona was eventually induced via her lover, a natural rival of Simonetta’s, to just go and invite Ludovico to return to Milan

Simonetta looked grave, as he well might, when he heard the news. “Most illustrious duchess,” he said to Bona the next day, “do you know what will happen? My head will be cut off, and before long you will lose this state.”

And so it was.

Bad news for Francesco Simonetta, sure, but Ludovico would one day use his position to commission Da Vinci’s The Last Supper.

Simonetta’s legacy beyond peninsular politics is somewhat less august. Hs treatise on code-breaking, Regule ad extrahendum litteras ziferatas sine exemplo (Rules for Decrypting Coded Documents), is a tipsheet for busting elementary substitution ciphers: determine the language, look for common words, exploit the letter patterns caused by standardized word endings (like -ing and -ed in English), isolate the vowels.

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1567: Pietro Carnesecchi, Florentine humanist and heretic

Add comment October 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date* in 1567, Florentine humanist Pietro Carnesecchi was burned after beheading at the Ponte Sant’Angelo in Rome.

Carnesecchi (English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was born to a wealthy Florentine merchant family allied with the Medici; as a child, Carnesecchi probably dandled the infant Cosimo, the future ruler of the city. His education was patronized by the Medici cardinal who went on to become Pope Clement VII.

All these friends in high places would prove in time to be a poisoned chalice.

But the young man was in his glory in his twenties at Clement’s papal court, as notary and protonotary, excelling in his lucrative sinecures on the curial cursus honorum.

To his grief and/or glory, he met along the way the Spanish reformer Juan de Valdes, who had taken refuge in Naples from the Spanish Inquisition, and the spellbinding pulpit orator Bernardino Ochino, who was by the late 1530s to trend towards outright apostasy.

Intellectual curiosity was a quality dangerous to its owners during the Reformation. Carnesecchi had his own insider’s view of the Church’s warts to add to the influences of these brilliant associates, and by the 1540s was obliged by his affinities to seek his safety in the more liberal religious environment of Venice … and later, after a close first brush with the Roman Inquisition, to leave Italy altogether.

He wasn’t on the run per se, but his was a contingent life: a few years in a place, with the ever-present peril that a shift in the political winds could see him or his friends to the scaffold. He returned from France to Venice in 1552, spurned a summons to justify himself once more to the Inquisition under the furiously anti-Protestant Pope Paul IV, and was even able to move back to the Eternal City with the accession to St. Peter’s Throne of another Medici cardinal as Pope Pius IV. The Inquisition, nevertheless, drug its feet when it came to acquitting Carnesecchi once again.

“Nothing progresses!” he cries in one of his letters, for the Inquisitors “will not judge as right and duty dictate, for they suggest scrupulous hesitancy where there is no ground for it, and interpret that prejudicially which, rightly apprehended, is good and praiseworthy.” In other words: prosecutors.

As Popes are said to alternate fat with thin, and old with young, here they traded zealot of the faith with mellow humanist. When Pius IV died, the pendulum swung back against Pietro and the relentlessly orthodox** Pius V took charge.

Carnesecchi took refuge in his native Florence, governed by that baby Cosimo de’ Medici, all grown up now into an authoritarian state-builder. Cosimo had welcomed him before, and interceded on his behalf in the last go-round with the Inquisition; Florence, moreover, had a long-running rivalry with Rome in peninsular politics. Carnesecchi would have supposed himself as safe there as ever he had been in his peregrinations.

“But how did Ghislieri’s [Pope Pius V's given name] reckless energy paralyse others!” as this book puts it. “Cosimo, too, was destined to feel its influence.”

Carnesecchi was a guest at his sovereign’s table when the friar Tomaso Manrique, the Master of the Papal Palace, was announced, as sent on a special mission to Florence, and desiring an interview with the Duke. The Pope had furnished his messenger with a letter bearing date June 20th, 1566, in which, after greeting Cosimo with the Apostolic Benediction, ‘he was called upon, in an affair which nearly affected obedience to the Divine Majesty and to the Catholic Church, and which the Pope had greatly at heart, as being of the highest importance, to give to the bearer of this letter the same faith as though His Holiness were present conversing with him.” Manrique claimed in the Pope’s name the delivering over of Carnesecchi into the hands of the Inquisition. The Duke made his friend and guest rise from the table and surrender himself on the spot to the Papal messenger. And he abjectly added, that, “had His Holiness — which God forfend — called upon him to surrender his own son for the same motive, he would not have hesitated one moment to have him bound and surrendered.”

Thanks, buddy.

Hauled immediately to a Vatican dungeon, Carnesecchi spent his last 15 months in prison, under interrogation, and sometimes on the rack.

“They would fain have me say of the living and of the dead things which I do not know, and which they would so fain hear,” Carnesecchi pleaded in (futile, intercepted) letters to old associates from the Curia. He admirably refused to incriminate anyone, but was convicted in September 1567 on 34 counts of obstinate heresy. They can all be read here — headlined by that hallmark of rank Protestantism, justification by faith alone.

Carnesecchi was stripped of his ecclesiastical ranks and his property, and turned over to the secular arm — the latter hypocritically “beseech[ed] … to mitigate the severity of your sentence with respect to his body, that there may be no anger of death or of shedding of blood,” which was, of course, the very intent and the effect of turning him over. Carnesecchi met his fate sturdily; his Catholic confessor complained that he was more interested in bantering ideas than penitence for his wrong opinions, and showed no proper fear of death.

In 1569, Pius V bestowed the title of Grand Duke of Tuscany on Cosimo.

Carnesecchi, long obscure to posterity, was exhumed almost literally when the Napoleonic Wars gave anti-clerical factions the opportunity to ransack secret Roman Inquisition archives. His meter-long file passed into a succession of private hands and was finally published in the mid-19th century, and as a result there are several public-domain volumes about the heretic in addition to the one we have already cited. Some of the original documents, with English translation, can be read in this volume; Italian speakers might give this one a go.

* There are a few citations out there for October 3. I can’t find a definitive primary source, and it may be that the original records are themselves ambiguous, so I’m going with the bulk of the modern and academic citations in favor of October 1.

** Anglos may recognize Pius V as the pope whose bull explicitly releasing Catholics from their allegiance to Queen Elizabeth put English followers of the Old Faith in an untenable position, much to the grisly profit of this here blog.

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1921: William Mitchell, Black and Tan

Add comment June 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1921, Great Britain hanged one of its own paramilitaries in Ireland. William Mitchell was, in fact, the only member of the reviled Black and Tans executed during the Irish War of Independence.*

This long-obscure case has been brought back to light by author D.J. Kelly, whose just-published Running With Crows: The Life and Death of a Black and Tan is a fact-based novel about William Mitchell’s execution.

Was Mitchell hanged for political expediency? Did he even commit the murder for which he stood condemned?

Kelly was kind enough to talk with Executed Today about exhuming a dead soul.

ET: What led you to take an interest in this hanging?

DJK: A third cousin of mine, who shares my interest in family history research, asked me to help her verify her late father’s claim that they were related to a Black and Tan who had been hanged for murder.

I knew that the ‘Tans’ were temporary policemen recruited in England from ex-combatants of The Great War and sent to Ireland to bolster the ranks of the beleaguered Royal Irish Constabulary during the Irish War of Independence. It took me no time at all to discovered that only one Black and Tan — indeed only one member of the entire British Crown Forces — had been executed during that conflict, and that indeed he shared a surname with my cousin.

However, I could find only the briefest of mentions of him in any accounts of that bitter struggle for Ireland’s freedom. It took me and my cousin two years to track down the elusive official case papers, to establish exactly who Mitchell was, and to tell his hitherto untold story. To date however, we still have not established a firm link with my cousin’s family.

The Black and Tans are of course still notorious in Ireland and elsewhere. In this book you’re complicating their story quite a bit, making at least this one Tan a sympathetic character. What sort of audience reception has Running with Crows had? Do you find there’s a lot of resistance to the story you have to tell? For that matter, did you have any misgivings to overcome in writing it?

You are right about their notoriety. The ‘Tans’ were bored, drunk and indisciplined during the short period of their service in Ireland. They were also poorly managed and allowed to run amok, robbing and assaulting the Irish population. There is no evidence however to support the popular myth that they included a greater number of criminals than has any police force before or since. They were disillusioned and battle-hardened men who were unable to find employment back in the ‘land fit for heroes’.

Book CoverIronically, one lone reviewer of my book has accused me of not making Mitchell sympathetic enough. It was not my intention though to create sympathy for this flawed and tragic man or to turn him into a folk hero. However, whilst I do not think he was the most honourable of men, I am not persuaded he deserved to hang.

I was indeed wary of uncovering this controversial case, especially as folks in Ireland, my own relatives included, are still sensitive and emotional about the events of the 1920s. The accepted view is that the old IRA were the heroes and the ‘Tans’ were the baddies. Few people realise however that at least a quarter of the Black and Tans were Irishmen, as indeed was Mitchell. However, I am delighted to have received highly positive reviews, from ‘both sides of the divide’, that is from an IRA re-enactment group as well as from supporters and historians of the Royal Irish Constabulary. Moreover, a theatrical production company, based in the town where the murder took place, and where people still remember and sympathise with the murdered magistrate’s family, has adapted my book to a stage play, which will debut there on 15 June at the Dunlavin Arts Festival. They have also kindly invited me to hold an author talk at the festival on the 16th June.

William Mitchell was hanged for killing a magistrate named Robert Dixon. Who was Robert Dixon and why was he a target during the war?

Robert Gilbert Dixon was an Anglo-Irish gentleman; a gentleman farmer who acted as an auctioneer at the local livestock auctions and who served as a district magistrate on the local circuit. He and his wife were descended from noble and philanthropic English forebears, and indeed Robert Dixon was respected in his community for his generosity shown both to his neighbours and to the police.

During the conflict though, both magistrates and police were viewed by the Nationalists as instruments of the occupying power (the British) and as such were prime targets for assassination by the IRA. Dixon’s murder was not a political killing however. He was shot dead, and his war hero son seriously wounded, during the course of a robbery at his home.

This post-war era saw the erosion of the class system and marked the beginning of the end for ‘the old order’. Socialism was gaining popularity and the working classes were shrugging off the idea that they should ‘know their place’. The awful loss of life, mainly through mis-management of the war, meant that many had lost respect for, and indeed were resentful of, the privileged classes. A truce was now imminent in Ireland and so the ‘Tans’, who were being paid per day what the regular Irish constables earned in a week, saw their lucrative employment coming to an end, and meanwhile, in Dunlavin, the Dixon family were conspicuously wealthy …

Coming at last to the main character here, who was William Mitchell? Why was he serving in the Black and Tans, and why did he end up at the end of a noose?

Contrary to what some commentators on the conflict have written, Mitchell was not English but Irish. He was a Dublin-born former professional soldier, who had served King and Empire, both in India and in the trenches of the Western Front. He was the son of Joseph Mitchell, a London-born soldier; a respectable man who had fought in the Boer War and who had married a Dublin Protestant girl.

Another myth, that of the privileged position of those in the ‘Protestant ascendancy’ in Ireland, is dispelled by William Mitchell’s impoverished upbringing in Dublin’s Monto district, which was not only Ireland’s, but indeed Europe’s, biggest slum and red-light district. William Mitchell was a man who did not respect authority — some might say, with good reason. When two masked intruders forced their way into the Dixon household and killed the magistrate during a bungled robbery, and when one of the ‘Tans’ shot himself dead at the local barracks the following day, it was believed the dead ‘Tan’ was the shooter, and so Mitchell was then arrested as his accomplice.

This hanging occurred just as London was determining to wind things down in Ireland; later that June, Prime Minister Lloyd George proposed peace talks. As a political sop, how important domestically within Ireland was William Mitchell’s execution in June 1921? Did it even register? Had he been spared, would that have affected at all the progress towards a truce?

Ah, you have put your finger on the nub of the issue.

As ill-disciplined and unruly as the temporary constables were, there was another arm of the Black and Tans which was far more undisciplined. The Auxiliaries were demobilised officers who had been engaged ostensibly to act as an officer cadre for the temporary constables but who had instead formed themselves into hit squads and set about abducting, torturing and killing suspects without due process of law. It was the Auxiliaries who were identified with some of the worst atrocities of the conflict, including the destruction of whole villages and towns and even of the murder of the mayor of Cork.

Several Auxiliaries had been tried for murder but acquitted, usually because crucial prosecution witnesses had ‘disappeared’. One indicted auxiliary, who was a decorated war hero, but most likely also a psychopath, and was head of the self-designated ‘murder squad’ based in Dublin Castle, was facing his second murder trial. By April 1921, the world’s press were united in condemning the British administration in Ireland for letting loose this uncontrolled ‘pseudo gendarmerie’ upon the Irish population. The number of Republicans who would be executed would run to two dozen, yet thus far, no member of the British Crown Forces had been convicted for any atrocity.

The Americans and the heads of the Commonwealth nations were demanding fair play. The British public were revolted by the way the conflict was being managed and now no less a personage than King George V stepped into the arena and demanded that Lloyd George‘s government show even handedness in the way it dealt with both rebel and law enforcer. Another acquittal was fully expected in the trial of the twice-tried Auxiliary, who had carried out his grisly and murderous duty on behalf of his government, but then along came the hapless Constable Mitchell, a ‘difficult’ Irishman who had allegedly killed, not an Irish rebel, but a magistrate; an Englishman and a representative of the establishment.

The outcome in the April trial of the Auxiliary, whose defence costs (equating in today’s values to £17,600) were met from the personal funds of Hamar Greenwood, Chief Secretary for Ireland, was an acquittal, as expected.

Mitchell’s swift trial a couple of days later, by court martial (so no right of appeal) attracted little publicity. He went stoically to the scaffold, leaving behind him a 23-year-old widow and a seven-week-old baby daughter.

Political events moved fairly swiftly thereafter, so it is hard to judge whether his execution had much effect on the progress of Ireland’s achieving independence. The focus of public attention was taken up next with the internal struggles leading up to the Civil War. It seems Mitchell’s execution had little effect in the grand scheme of things.

So, did Mitchell kill the magistrate? Was he even present at the crime scene or was he a sacrificial lamb, slaughtered to offset criticism of Lloyd George’s administration in Ireland? I have presented all there is to know of this man’s life and death, as found in his military and police records, trial transcripts etcetera, and whether or not he killed the magistrate for whose murder he was hanged, or whether this was an awful miscarriage of justice, I leave for the reader to judge.

What happened to Mitchell’s family afterwards? And all these years later, what do the descendants think about their ancestor’s execution, and about the work you did with it?

I felt I could not let Mitchell’s story end with his execution. Since this is a novel closely based on a true and tragic story, I felt the reader would want to know what happened next. I know I certainly did, so I continued my research, and my narrative, to recount what had happened to many of the players in the story, and this may be found in the book’s epilogue.

Mitchell’s baby daughter lived into her nineties, always believing her father had died a hero in the course of his police service. Her respectable and courageous widowed mother did not want her little girl to grow up with any sort of stigma. Other family members knew of Mitchell’s fate however. When I tracked down his living descendants, I was cautious of the sensitivities surrounding my exposing Mitchell’s history. However, the family were keen for the full story to come out, and moreover they provided me with photographs of Mitchell, for which I am most grateful, as they enabled me to put a face to a man who hitherto had been simply a statistic.

This is not the end of the Mitchell story, however. His mortal remains (which are amongst the few still buried within the precincts of Dublin’s Mountjoy Gaol) will one day be exhumed when planned re-development of the gaol is commenced. When that day comes, my cousin and I will press for his re-interment in a local cemetery. Mitchell may not warrant the hero’s funeral accorded the Republicans who have all be disinterred from Mountjoy, but I believe he deserves at least a Christian burial.

* Still also known as the “Black and Tan War”.

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1678: William Staley, “the prologue to the bloody tragedy”

1 comment November 26th, 2012 Headsman

David’s mildness managed it so well,
The bad found no occasion to rebel.
But when to sin our biassed nature leans,
The careful devil is still at hand with means, [80]
And providently pimps for ill desires;
The good old cause, revived, a plot requires.
Plots, true or false, are necessary things,
To raise up commonwealths, and ruin kings.

-John Dryden’s Absalom and Achitophel, a Biblical allegory of the English political/religious scene in which the Popish Plot (“plots, true or false”) took place

On this date in 1679, a Catholic goldsmith was hanged and quartered for treason … a preposterous case that would preview the tragic main acts of the “Popish Plot”.

This 17th century anti-Catholic witch hunt traced to weird and unprincipled Anglican divine Titus Oates.

With his friend Israel Tonge, Oates in 1678 ginned up a fantastical Jesuit plot against the life of Charles II — which supposed conspiracy played insidiously to the realm’s age-old religious divisions, in a moment when a Catholic royal sibling stood next in line to the throne.

Indeed, Oates’s “revelations” would trigger the Exclusion Crisis, an unsuccessful parliamentary bid to balk the heir presumptive James (eventually James II) of his throne. Parliament, argued Henry Capell, “must quiet the minds of the people, as to their fears of Popery and the Succession.”

In Queen Elizabeth’s time there were conspiracies against her, when Mary Queen of Scots was taken off. In King James’s time, the Gunpowder-Treason. In the last King’s time, a horrid Rebellion, that ended in his murder; but here the Crown is under such a character as is more dangerous than all those; and from Popery came the notion of a standing Army and arbitrary power.

Oh, and London had just burned down within everyone’s living memory, an event popularly ascribed to a French Catholic conspiracy even into the 19th century.

There was an awful lot of latent (and not-so-latent) anti-Popery around for Oates to stir up, and he proved to have a gift for this demagoguery. (pdf) In late 1678, a magistrate investigating Oates’s claims, Edmund Berry Godfrey, was mysteriously murdered, and all hell broke loose: a political assassination could now be hung on the alleged Catholic conspiracy. In short order, alleged Catholic conspirators would themselves hang for it.

It was a full 9/12 mentality: people going about armed, loyalty oaths, rumors of French invasion or Guy Fawkes tunneling.

Oates, when feeling his, would have the juice to put peers of the realm on the scaffold … so what chance did poor William Staley have?

This patsy, no great ornament of the “plot”, was more an incidental (and expedient) casualty of the swelling paranoia. Overheard at a tavern chatting about the Protestant freak-out, in French (quelle horreur!), a couple of unscrupulous eavesdroppers shopped for treason when they couldn’t blackmail him.

The sovereign was supposed to have been characterized in this chat as “a great Persecutor or Tormentor of the people of God … And ([Staley] stretching forth his Arm, and then clapping his Hand on his Breast), speaking of His Sacred Majesty, said, I my self will kill him.” (Source) Whether a frustrated Catholic into his cups incautiously popping off, an innocent naif set up by reprobates, or a case of lost in translation, it seems safe to say that William Staley was no danger to the monarchy.

Staley, at any rate, denied having said anything of the sort all the few hours that remained to draw breath, which wasn’t many. It was a mere 12 days from the “treasonable” conversation on Nov. 14 to Staley’s execution.


Image from William Faithorne‘s 1681 (misdated) engraving depicting William Staley being drawn to execution.

With this hanging, and another (that of Edward Coleman) a week later, the Popish Plot persecutions were into full swing … three years of Stuart England McCarthyism that would claim at least 15 lives and end with Titus Oates imprisoned, whipped, and pilloried.

After the Orange Revolution chased the Catholic monarch out of England, Oates was released and pensioned: the incident long remained an ideological litmus test between proto-Whigs (pro-Oates, as he was a club wielded against the absolutist aspirations of Charles II and James II) and Tories (anti-Oates, for the same reason). Centuries later, one commenter could still remark, “There are three events in our history that may be regarded as the touchstone of party men: an English whig who asserts the reality of the Popish plot, an Irish Catholic who denies the massacre of 1641, a Scotch Jacobite who maintains the innocence of Queen Mary, must be considered as men beyond the reach of argument or reason.”

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2011: Oba Chandler

2 comments November 15th, 2012 Meaghan

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

A year ago today, Oba Chandler was executed by lethal injection in Florida for the brutal triple homicide of a Willshire, Ohio mother and her two teenage daughters.

Thirty-six-year-old Joan Mae “Jo” Rogers and her daughters Michelle, 17, and Christe, 14, were vacationing in Florida when they vanished on June 1, 1989. Three days later their bodies turned up in the Tampa Bay. All three were naked from the waist down and had their hands and feet bound, their mouths taped shut, and concrete blocks tied to their necks. Michelle had managed to free one arm before she drowned.


The victims (left to right): Joan, Michelle, and Christe Rogers.

The police initially suspected the girls’ uncle, John Rogers, even though he was in prison at the time.

Rogers had been incarcerated for rape; one of his victims was Michelle, and authorities theorized he had a third party kill her and her mother and sister. Eventually that gentleman was cleared, as was his brother Hal, husband and father of the victims.

The sexual abuse, which had gone on for years, had torn the family apart, and part of the reason for the Florida vacation was so that everyone could relax and get some distance from what had happened. Hal had wanted to join his wife and daughters on their trip, but he had to stay and look after the family’s dairy farm.

The murders and subsequent investigation were covered in heartbreaking detail in St. Petersburg Times reporter Thomas French‘s Pulitzer Prize-winning series here.

Characteristically, local gossip pursued Hal and John for years, particularly Hal. His neighbors in Ohio thought he didn’t appear traumatized enough,* noting that he never cried in public and that he continued to take care of his farm in the wake of the murders.

They didn’t care that the farm was Hal’s livelihood, that cows could not milk themselves. They didn’t care that there was no evidence that he’d left Ohio during the critical time period, and that the police had very quickly cleared Hal as a possible suspect in Jo, Michelle and Christe’s deaths. They didn’t know that he was too traumatized to sleep in his own home and spent months couch-surfing at friends’ houses. They didn’t know that he was devastated, that he’d tried to take his own life at one point so he could be with his family.

As Hal’s sister-in-law said, “There’s no protocol here. There’s no Murder 101 class. No Grief 101 that anybody thinks to give you.”

Stranger-on-stranger crimes are incredibly difficult to solve. It wasn’t until October 1989 that the police linked the Rogers family’s murders to the rape of a Canadian tourist that had happened in May, two weeks before the triple homicide. The rapist had lured the woman out onto a boat, threatened to kill her, and threatened to duct-tape her mouth if she didn’t stop screaming. After the rape he apologized to her, threw up over the side of the boat, took her to shore and let her go.

Police released a composite sketch of the woman’s attacker, whom they believed was the same man who killed the Rogerses. That got over 400 tips from the public, but none of them panned out.

Twice, the case appeared on the popular television show Unsolved Mysteries.

The authorities found some driving directions written on a brochure in Jo’s car which were not in her handwriting and which they thought were written by the murderer; they released samples to the public in the hopes that someone would recognize the writing.


Composite sketch of the suspect (top); Oba Chandler as he looked around the time of his 1992 arrest (bottom).

Finally they got a break: one of Chandler’s neighbors recognized the sketch of the rape suspect and turned his name over to the police. That same neighbor had hired Chandler to build out her porch, and she had a copy of the contract he’d written out for her. She turned the contract over to the authorities, and handwriting experts determined it was written by the same man who wrote the driving directions found in Jo’s car. Investigators also found Chandler’s palm print on the brochure.

In September 1992, convinced that they were on the right track, the police flew to Canada to interview the rape survivor from May 1989. She picked Chandler’s photo out of a line-up. With that, the authorities finally had enough evidence to make the arrest.

Chandler, an Ohio native like his victims, gave the impression of an ordinary, mild-mannered sort, but he was in fact a career criminal: he went by many alias names and had an arrest record dating back to when he was fourteen years old, for a wide range of offenses including car theft, robbery, kidnapping, receiving stolen property, possession of counterfeit money, and various sex crimes. By the time of his 1992 arrest he had racked up six felony convictions.

Chandler testified at the murder trial, against the advice of his attorney, and admitted he had met the three victims and given them directions. He could hardly deny that, given the handwriting and fingerprint evidence.

He did deny having ever seen them again after that, and he swore he’d never taken them out on his boat and never harmed them. He called the very idea “ludicrous.” In fact, he maintained his innocence until his death.

But the prosecution eviscerated him during cross-examination. Chandler claimed that on the night of the murders he’d gotten stuck out in Tampa Bay when his boat’s fuel line sprung a leak and he ran out of gas. A boat mechanic employed by the Florida Marine Patrol examined the vessel and determined that this story was impossible: the boat had an anti-siphon valve that would have prevented a leak.

The Canadian rape victim was permitted to testify. She didn’t cry as she described what happened to her, but some of the jurors did. One of Chandler’s adult daughters (he had eight children by seven different women) also testified, saying her father had told her he’d raped a foreign tourist and also killed some women in Florida.

The judge who presided over the trial later said Chandler was “the vilest, most evil defendant I ever handled.” When the jury retired, they took an initial poll among themselves and discovered that all twelve believed he was guilty. For form’s sake, however, they waited an hour and a half before returning with their verdict.

There’s some speculation that Chandler was involved in other murders besides those of the Rogers family.

Linda Lois Little, a Daytona Beach woman, disappeared on his birthday in 1991 and was never found. One of Little’s sisters thinks saw him at her apartment complex a few days before Little disappeared. Chandler refused to answer law enforcement’s questions about Little’s disappearance and his involvement has never been proved one way or the other.

During his seventeen years on death row, Chandler never had a single visitor, not even any of his own relatives. The execution, which went smoothly, was attended by Michelle and Christe’s cousin, as well as a reluctant Hal Rogers. He remarried more than a decade after his family’s murder and became a stepfather of four, but wasn’t able to have any more children.

When asked if he had any last words, Chandler simply answered, “No.” He did leave a written statement that simply said, “You are killing an innocent man today.”

No one believed him.

* “Didn’t display the right kind of grief in the right kind of way for the right amount of time” was also one of the raps on wrongly executed “arsonist” Cameron Todd Willingham.

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1842: Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly, Great Game diplomats

1 comment June 17th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1842,* British diplomats Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly were summarily beheaded by a Central Asian potentate as London’s ill-chosen intervention in Afganistan came to a disastrous conclusion.

The backdrop is “the Great Game”,** the long-running chess match for supremacy in Central Asia between an expanding Russian Empire and Great Britain, with its imperial position in India.

Seeking to pre-empt a Russian move into Afghanistan, Britain invaded in 1839. This was the First Anglo-Afghan War: it would have, for the Brits, an inglorious end.

Our day’s featured principals were among the postscript casualties of that catastrophe, never-avenged losses for an empire that had overreached itself.

Stoddart, an intelligence officer, had been dispatched northward to the ancient silk road city of Bokhara intending enlist the allegiance, or at least the benign neutrality, of its emir, Nasrullah Khan. Today Uzbekistan’s fifth-largest city, Bokhara was then an independent state .

[I]n the nineteenth century, the executions carried out there with genuine cruelty, as well as the tales told by travelers gave the city a reputation of being a forbidden, closed, and hostile place. It was “despotic” Bukhara, and the Europeans projected onto it their own oriental fantasies: with citadel, dungeons, palaces, and city walls bolted shut at night, all helping to set the scene.

(Vibe on some the oriental fantasy in the 1911 volume The Emir of Bokhara and His Country, or this volume on Russian Central Asia, which by then included Bokhara.)


Scenic! Bukhara’s historic citadel, the Ark, where Stoddart (and later Conolly) were imprisoned (and later executed). (cc) image from elif ayse.

Into this scene, our Brit entered clumsily, immediately irritating the ruler he intended to supplicate. Reportedly (though the fact has been disputed), he was on the brink of execution when he acceded to save his life to Nasrullah’s formulaic offer of clemency in exchange for conversion to Islam.

In any event, Stoddart languished for years, alternately imprisoned and in the custody of the (better-received) Russian mission. Though the latter had also been charged by its sovereign to retrieve the ill-favored English emissary as a gesture of Great Powers goodwill (and to deprive England of any rationale for intervention that his captivity might offer), Stoddart seems to have been too stubbornly prideful to get out via St. Petersburg while the getting was good.

Instead, he waited on the arrival of countryman Arthur Conolly, who showed up in late 1841 on a mission to secure Stoddart’s release. But Stoddart’s situation little improved, considering Nasrullah Khan’s wary reaction to this second British interloper.

Word has it that the Bukharan prince was piqued that correspondence to him did not arrive over the signature of the British monarch herself, but merely some subcontinental subaltern — as well as, we might think understandably, suspicious at his guests’ motivations and mission.

The captor’s uncertain attitude towards his prisoners was resolved by Britain’s catastrophic loss of Kabul and the subsequent massacre of an entire 16,000-strong army as it attempted to retreat.

Seriously, the whole army. To a man. Except for one guy.


Remnants of an Army, by Elizabeth Butler, depicts the only British subject on retreat from Kabul to reach Jalalabad, William Brydon.

Battles don’t get much more decisive than that.†

Reasoning‡ that the routed British were now of no conceivable threat, nor his prisoners of any conceivable benefit, Nasrullah Khan now accused them of espionage and abused them with impunity.

The two were cast into an Indiana Jones-esque “bug pit,” an oubliette infested with … well, you know.§

Later, finding illicit writing materials secreted on his captives’ persons, the mercurial Nasrullah disposed of them outright.

their quarters were entered by several men, who stripped them, and carried them off to prison … In stripping Colonel Stoddart a lead pencil was found in the lining of his coat, and some papers in his waist. These were taken to the Ameer, who gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be beaten with heavy sticks until he disclosed who brought the papers, and to whom he wrote. He was most violently beaten, but he revealed nothing; he was beaten repeatedly for two or three days. On Friday, the 8th or 9th (the 7th) of Jemmadee-ool-Eovel (17th of June), the Ameer gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be killed in the presence of Captain Conolly, who was to be offered life if he would become a Mahomedan. In the afternoon they were taken outside the prison into the street, which is a kind of small square. Their hands were tied across in front. Many people assembled to behold the spectacle. Their graves were dug before their eyes. Colonel Stoddart exclaimed aloud at the cruelty and tyranny of the Ameer. His head was then cut off with a knife.

The chief executioner then turned to Captain Conolly, and said — “The Ameer spares your life if you will become a Mussulman.” Captain Conolly answered, “Colonel Stoddart has been a Mussulman for three years, and you have killed him, you killed Yoosoof too; I will not be a Mussulman, and I am ready to die.” Saying which he stretched forth his neck. His head was then cut off.

-London Times, Aug. 22, 1843, reporting the testimony of a dubious local semi-ally

The veracity of this faint bulletin from a distant and inaccessible realm nevertheless remained in some doubt. Friends of the lost men, despairing of obtaining definitive word of their fate, commissioned a strange but courageous missionary named Joseph Wolff to brave his own sojourn to Bokhara to investigate.

Wolff barely escaped with his own life, but seemingly confirmed the sad story and published a Narrative of his travels in 1845 (Part 1, Part 2).

* The initially reported June 17 execution date was subsequently contested by Joseph Pierre Ferrier, who argued that the chronology instead pointed to the next Friday, June 24. The matter appears to me permanently unresolvable.

** Ironically, the sportive phrase “the Great Game” was itself attributed to Arthur Conolly for whom, in the end, events turned out to be quite other than playful.

† Britain recaptured Kabul in reprisal later in 1842, upon which pretext it was able to declare its honor vindicated and depart Kabul (sans massacre), ending the war. Certain latter-day occupations of that “graveyard of empires” might envy their forebear’s talent for declaring victory and leaving.

‡ Correctly. Nasrullah Khan faced no British reprisal for his treatment of Stoddart and Conolly, notwithstanding the attempt by some friends to use their sad fate as some sort of casus belli. This public domain book from 1845 bears a dedication to Queen Victoria in “hope of directing your Majesty’s attention to the cruel sufferings and alleged murder of two British officers … abandoned in an unaccountable manner, by your Majesty’s Government … [in circumstances] degrading to the British nation;” the same man had previously published an “Appeal to the British Nation” in an “endeavour to excite the public sympathy.” Sympathy or no, the two British officers stayed abandoned.

§ Bug tortureenhanced interrogation was actually authorized during the Bush administration for the insect-averse Abu Zubaydah. The gentleman approving that technique, Jay Bybee, is now a federal circuit judge.

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1945: Sigmund Rascher, feared science

10 comments April 26th, 2012 Headsman

It’s on this date in 1945 that Sigmund Rascher is supposed to have been summarily executed in Dachau.

If that’s what happened, it’s no more than Rascher (English Wikipedia page | German) deserved.

This doctor made his Nazi bones by forging a relationship with Heinrich Himmler (he married Himmler’s ex-mistress), and joining Himmler’s SS.

Rascher was doing cancer-cure experiments on animals, but once he had Himmler in his Rolodex he graduated to research on homo sapiens.

From 1941 to 1944, Rascher conducted some of the textbook ethical trespasses of Berlin’s human experimentation regime, using Dachau prisoners in:

  • high-altitude experiments to help fighter pilots, tested by subjecting prisoners to rapid de- and re-pressurization;
  • freezing experiments, tested by subjecting prisoners to freezing water or outdoor exposure, and then attempting by various methods to restore body warmth;
  • blood clotting experiments, tested by giving prisoners major gunshot wounds or other grievous bodily injuries, then monitoring how well a new drug slowed the bleeding.

Class act all the way. Rascher did publish some papers and deliver some conference presentations on aspects of his horrifying science, but in one of those little contradictions of the evil security state, the man was foiled in his bid for an advanced academic credential because much of the research was too secret for his peers to review.

In the end it was a much more mundane breach of ethics that did him in: Rascher and wife were arrested in 1944 for having actually kidnapped the children they claimed were their own.

They were stashed away in separate camps. For unclear reasons — perhaps because Rascher connected all this atrocious research back to Himmler, who was vainly trying to cut a peace deal with the West at this point, or maybe simply because Himmler was annoyed at the embarrassment his protege’s misconduct had given him — the bad doctor was summarily shot in his cell as the Allies bore down on Dachau.

(We will note in passing this argument, and this, disputing that story as well as this execution date. Executed Today is not in a position to contribute to that conversation.)


Elsewhere …


Caption: Polish and Russian forced laborers shot by the SS after they had collapsed from exhaustion during a death march. Wisenfeld, Germany, April 26, 1945.

— National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, Md. Via the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum

From the Themed Set: The Death Rattle of the Third Reich.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Concentration Camps,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Germany,History,Intellectuals,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1612: Refried Edward Wightman

4 comments April 11th, 2012 Headsman

“Well, it is so often the way, sir, too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance — burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism — must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.’”

-Edmund Blackadder, Ink and Incapability

On this date in 1612, Edward Wightman became the last person burnt for heresy in England.*

The clothier’s religious dissension had macerated in Puritanism — which was bad enough — and decanted into a heady potion of “the wicked heresies of Ebion, Cerinthus, Valentinian, Arius, Macedonius, Simon Magus, Manichees, Photinus, and of the Anabaptists and other arch heretics, and moreover, of other cursed opinions belched by the instinct of Satan.” Sort of a cafeteria heretic.

All this made a delectable smorgasbord when Wightman went on spectacular public trial late in 1611. Yet even this was not so much the direct outcome of a strict anti-heretic policy as of political rearrangements of the moment: essentially the Calvinist Archbishop of Canterbury George Abbott vs. anti-Calvinists like the future Archbishop of Canterbury William Laud. Laud was involved in Wightman’s prosecution.

As these worthies maneuvered for influence, our irrepressible preacher

was batted back and forth like a shuttlecock between the spring and autumn of 1611 … In the first ten weeks of his imprisonment, Wightman was brought before the High Commission four times before being discharged uncondemned in mid-June 1611; after an initial burst of energy and concern, the court appears to have decided to take no immediate action against the accused heretic who remained imprisoned at the king’s pleasure.**

There had not been a person put to death for heresy since 1589. Elizabeth I — she who eschewed “windows into men’s souls” — rarely hunted citizens for doctrinal difference alone. (Catholicism was constructed, rightly or wrongly, as treason: a crime of the state, rather than of the conscience.)

Wightman made himself a target by publicly flaunting his strange beliefs,† and by late in 16121 the anti-Calvinists had control of the process and a perceived opportunity to score political points by prosecuting him. The trial was a cinch, since Wightman made no bones about his dissension.

One is almost so inured to the hagiographic style of the day, martyr unflinchingly thrusting flesh into flame, that one might well forget how very unpleasant burning alive must be.

Wightman, as the heat of the pyre warmed under him on March 9, shrieked out an agonized recantation, or maybe just something of animal pain that the crowd misinterpreted. Infernus interruptus ensued and the stake was actually doused, with the singed near-executee removed to convalesce and formalize his timely abjuration.

But reprieve recovered the recusant’s recalcitrance, and he soon resumed his error, “every day more blasphemous.” So on this date, Wightman

was caried agayne to the stake where feeling the heat of the fier again would have recanted, but for all his crieinge the sheriff tould hyme he showld cosen him no more and comanded faggottes to be sett to him whear roringe he was burned to ashes.

It was not until 1677 that England abolished the death penalty for all religious offenses.

There’s an alleged family connection from Wightman’s descendants to most of the Wightmans and Whitmans in North America. That would include the 19th century U.S. missionary Marcus Whitman, who pioneered the Oregon trail, triggered a notorious Native American massacre against his homestead, and is the namesake of Walla Walla’s Whitman College.

* Not to be confused with the last-ever burnt, which wasn’t until 1789.

** Ian Atherton and David Como, “The Burning of Edward Wightman: Puritanism, Prelacy and the Politics of Heresy in Early Modern England,” English Historical Review, Dec. 2005. Recommended reading for anyone interested in really unpacking Wightman’s world and outlook.

† According to interrogators, Wightman “affirmed my selfe to be that prophet promised in the 18 of Deuteronomie. And that Elyas in the 4th of Malachie promised to be sent before the great and fearfull day of the Lord. And that comfortor in the 16th of John which should convince the world of sinne of righteousnes and of Judgment.”

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