On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.
The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.
The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.
Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.
The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.
The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.
His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.
One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.
In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.
Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.
The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.
One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.
In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:
“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”
Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.
The English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, envoy to the Mughal Empire from 1615 to 1619 during the reign of Jahangir, recorded in his journal* the unfortunate fate this date of a nameless woman for being caught rendezvousing with a palace eunuch.
This day a gentellwoeman of Normalls was taken in the kings house in some action with an Eunuch. Another Capon that loved her kylld him. The Poore Woeman was sett up to the Arme pitts in the Earth hard ramed, her feete tyde to a stake, to abyde 3 dayes and 2 nights without any sustenance, her head and armes bare, exposed to the sunns violence: if shee died not in that tyme she should bee pardoned. The Eunuch was Condemned to the Eliphantes. This damsell yeelded in Pearle, Jewelles, and ready mony 160,000 rupias.
That this bit character who does not even merit a name here left such a fortune surely testifies to the Mughal Empire’s famously astounding trade wealth.
Roe does not disclose how long the condemned woman managed to survive, but the separate memoir of Roe’s chaplain Edward Terry confirms that she succumbed to exposure well before the elapse of the pardonable three days. (The two seem to have received differing intelligence on the execution method of the eunuch, despite Terry’s indication that it transpired practically in the English mission’s backyard.)
Now for the disposition of that King, it ever seemed unto me to be composed of extremes; for sometimes he was barbarously cruel, and at other times he would seem to be exceedingly fair and gentle.
For his cruelties, he put one of his women to a miserable death; one of his women he had formerly touched and kept company with, but now she was superannuated; for neither himself nor nobles (as they say) come near their wives or women, after they exceed the age of thirty years. The fault of that woman was this; the Mogul upon a time found her and one of his eunuchs kissing one another; and for this very thing, the King presently gave command that a round hole should be made in the earth, and that her body should be put into that hole, where she should stnad with her head only above ground, and the earth to be put in again unto her close round about her, that so she might stand in the parching sun ’till the extreme hot beams thereof did kill her; in which torment she lived one whole day, and the night following, and almost ’till the next noon, crying out most lamentably, while she was able to speak, in her language, as the Shumanite’s child did in his, 2 King. 4. “Ah my head, my head!” which horrid execution, or rather murder, was acted near our house; where the eunuch, by the command of the said King, was brought very near the place where this poor creature was thus buried alive, and there in her sight cut all into pieces.
* Published as The embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, as narrated in his journal and correspondence. This vignette is from volume 1; there is also a volume 2
On this date in 1927,* the Bohemian playboy Jindrich Bažant was hanged at Kutna Hora for a murder spree directed at his several lovers.
Thanks to wealthy parents, Bazant‘s major occupation was the pleasures of the flesh.
But really, “I was destined to be a murderer,” he confessed upon arrest. He’d certainly thrown himself into the role once he tired of his girlfriends.
Two women who fancied themselves future Mrs. Bazants were the victims: Marie Safarikova, age 19, lured into a supposed elopement to Slovakia and then coldly shot dead in the woods; and Josefa Pavelkova, who was already pregnant with Bazant’s child.
Yet another lover, Bozena Rihova, almost met the same fate after she threatened Bazant with a criminal complaint for infecting her with a venereal disease. Bazant shot her, bludgeoned her with a hammer, and set her on fire — but Rihova miraculously survived to testify against her former paramour.
Bazant was among the last put to death by Leopold Wohlschlager, one of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s five state executioners at the time of its dissolution. Wohlschlager got started in the craft at the tender age of 15, and was well into his seventies when he hanged Bazant.
* I’m going with the plurality (and the best-detailed) of Czech-language articles here, against some cites for the same date in 1926.
On this date in 1646, a black slave named Jan Creoli was executed in Manhattan, part of what was then called New Netherland and is now New York.
Creoli had been caught having carnal knowledge of a ten-year-old boy, another slave named Manuel Congo. Several of his own fellow Africans turned him in to the authorities. When Manuel Congo was brought face-to-face with Creoli, the boy “without being threatened in any way confessed to the deed in the presence of the prisoner.”
The statement that a ten-year-old child who had been raped might “confess to the deed” seems startling to modern eyes, but it is highly significant for understanding Dutch authorities’ actions. As far as New Netherland’s officials were concerned, Manuel Congo was not just a victim but also a participant in the crime of sodomy despite his age and the fact that he had been raped. Dutch officials in New Netherland and in the United Provinces regarded sodomy as one of the worst social crimes possible, every bit as serious as murder.
Confronted with his victim’s testimony, Creoli admitted his guilt and shamefacedly added that he’d also committed sodomy while in the Dutch Caribbean colony of Curacao.
He was accordingly executed: tied to stake, garrotted, and his body burned to ashes. Little Manuel got off lightly: he was only whipped.
It was a more bestial appetite that saw him into the guillotine’s annals: on October 27, he pursuaded an eight-year-old schoolgirl, the daughter of his benefactor publican, to come along with him. Once he had her in the swamps, Carrein attempted to ravish little Cathy Petit. As Cathy struggled, Carrein later explained — he confessed almost immediately — “I saw red. I felt lost in the idea that she would denounce me, so I threw her in the pond.”
Her drowned corpse was discovered the next day.
The growing reluctance of the French state to slice off heads in the 1970s did not express itself in interminable wait times on death row. Carrein was condemned to death on July 12, 1976, during the run-up to Christian Ranucci‘s execution for a similar abduction/child murder.
That conviction was vacated a few months later for a trial irregularity, but the retrial took place in the wake of another high-profile trial: anti-death penalty crusader Robert Badinter had successfully defended a man named Patrick Henry from the guillotine in yet another nationally known child murder case, winning a life sentence instead. There was no small public outcry over this outcome, and Carrein’s prosecutor explicitly called on the jury in his second case to avenge with severity to Carrein the “rape of public conscience” perpetrated by leniency to Henry. (London Times, June 24, 1977)
Pierre Lefrance, speaking for Carrein’s defense, ventured his own appeal to the jurors’ wider sensibilities — in this case, of the growing likelihood that capital punishment was nearing the end of the line in France: “Were the death penalty to be abolished at last in the next year or two, would you wish that Carrein was the last man guillotined in France?”
The invaluable French-language guillotine.cultureforum.net has a forum thread on this case; be sure to note the appearance on page 3 of a poster claiming to be the daughter of Jerome Carrein’s first wife.
The last execution in the history of the former state of Czechoslovakia occurred on this date in 1989.
Staggering home extremely drunk late one autumn night, Štefan Svitek (English Wikipedia entry | Czech) found the door locked and the pregnant Roma wife he regularly battered disinclined to open it.
So Svitek opened it himself by grabbing an obliging ax and splintering it to pieces.
Then he turned the ax on poor Marie and the family’s two daughters.*
Even the most aggressive executioners — and Czechoslovakia was not that — don’t hang every homicide. Svitek might have doomed himself in the final analysis with his disturbing sexual proclivities, especially since they surfaced during his rampage. He reportedly carved up the bodies, sliced off his late wife’s breasts and even cut the still-stirring embryo of his next child out of her womb, and pleasured himself over all the fresh gore. He would later describe it as the most intense sexual experience of his life.
It emerged at trial that Svitek’s youth in an alcoholic home had warped his animal urges so severely that he pursued urges for animals, taking special gratification in castrating them.
This last operation Svitek perpetrated on his own self as he fled in panic from his domestic charnel house, then attempted to commit suicide by hanging.**
He broke that rope. On the 8th of June in 1989, he did the same to Czechoslovakia’s.
Svitek’s hanging June 8, 1989, was not only the last ever in the soon-to-be-defunct Czechoslovakia, but the last associated with either of Czechoslovakia’s successor states, neither of which have the death penalty on the books. (Svitek was hanged in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital; the last execution in the Czech half was that of Vladimir Lulek earlier in 1989.)
On this date in 1909, Fred Seward was hanged at the Boise penitentiary.
Seward developed an obsession with a “notorious woman” named Clara O’Neill, of Moscow. (Idaho, not Russia.)
When O’Neill spurned his suit, Seward shot her dead. Then he turned the same gun on himself: the shot gruesomely disfigured his face and cost him the sight in his left eye — but it did not kill him.
The state of Idaho was more than willing to pick up the slack.
From the Idaho Daily Statesman, May 8, 1909
His last words were simply, “Do a good job, boys.”
The boys — Seward’s executioners — did so, and cleanly snapped his neck in the fall.
“The Son of God, who came not to destroy, but to save men’s lives, has revealed to the world the right life for both men and nations. The great mission then of the individual, the church, the state and the nation is not to destroy men, but to bless, help and save them. In the light of the teachings of Christ, the state has no more right to kill than the individual.
“The official murder at the penitentiary the other day was most demoralizing in its influence upon the people who read the horrible details of the transaction. Let men who are a menace to the public be shut up where they can do no harm to their fellows, but let the state learn to help, reform and save them, but not destroy them. ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is as good scripture for a state or nation as for a church or an individual.”
On this date in 1887, Theodore Baker was hanged for murder in Springer, New Mexico.
Baker was taken on as a lodger and ranch hand in Colfax County by an acquaintance named Frank Unruh, and there struck up a liaison with Unruh’s pretty young wife Kate.
One jealous and alcohol-fueled argument later, Baker had shot Unruh dead.
Both Baker and Kate Unruh were arrested, but in December 1885 a mob decided to dispense with the legal niceties and broke into the jail, dragging Theodore Baker out to lynch him to a telegraph pole.
Just another Old West lynching.
Except this lynching had an unusual distinction: it was defeated by a sheriff’s posse, and Baker cut down after having strangled some minutes — unconscious, but alive. He had already survived execution and the trial hadn’t even happened.
But that didn’t mean he got to skip the trial.
After months of recovery, Baker finally went on trial for the murder of Frank Unruh, and with the damning if self-interested testimony of Kate Unruh was condemned on September 6, 1886 to face the noose once again.
Being that this was an age of mass communication, Baker — evidently somewhat garrulous — provided newspapers ample copy on the firsthand experience of execution. (Line breaks have been added to all the ensuing newspaper excerpts for readability.)
[A]t the gaol door I began to curse them, when one of the put the muzzle of his pistol to my ear and said — ‘Keep still, d— you, or I’ll put a bullet through you.’ I knew him by his voice, and knew he would do it, so I kept still.
A little further on we came to a telegraph pole. From the cross bar swung a new rope. One one end was a slipnoose.
They led me under the rope. I tried to stoop down and pull off my boots, as I had promised my folks I would not die with my boots on, but before I could do it the noose was thrown over my head and I was jerked off my feet.
My senses left me in a moment, and then I waked up in what seemed to be another world.
As I recollect now, the sensation was that everything about me had been multiplied a great many times.
It seemed that my five executioners had grown in number until there were thousands of them.
I saw what seemed to be a multitude of animals of all shapes and sizes.
Then things changed and I was in great pain. I became conscious that I was hanging by the neck, and that the knot of the rope had slipped around under my chin.
My hands were loosely tied, and I jerked them loose and tried to catch the rope above me. Somebody caught me by the feet just then and gave me a jerk.
It seemed like a bright flash of lightning passing in front of my eyes. It was the brightest thing I ever saw.
It was followed by a terrible pain up and down and across my back, and I could feel my legs jerk and draw up.
Then there was a blank and I knew nothing more until 11 o’clock next day …
My first recollection was being in the court room and saying, ‘Who cut me down.’
There was a terrific ringing in my ears like the beating of gongs. I recognised no one. The pain in my back continued.
Moments of unconsciousness followed during several days, and I have very little recollection of the journey here. Even after I had been locked up in this prison for safe keeping, for a long time I saw double. Dr. Symington, the prison physician, looked like two persons.
I was still troubled with spells of total forgetfulness. Sometimes it seemed I didn’t know who I was.
All that Baker gave out in the run-up to his actual trial.
As his (judicial) hanging neared, and his hopes for avoiding it vanished, our expansive man on death row got philosophical with a correspondent from the New York Sun. The Chicago Daily Tribune of May 23, 1887 reprints Baker’s remembrance — has it evolved from the previous year? — and Baker’s wider thoughts on life and death.
It is not the pain I fear at all. I have been hanged, and I know what I am talking about. What ails me is that I don’t want to die, and I don’t think I ought to.
Probably if you knew that in an instant you were to be blown to nothingness, so that you could experience no suffering whatever, you would appreciate how I feel about it.
As for the mode of death, you can say that it is as good as any other, and it don’t need to be too artistically done, either.
Why, when they hanged me first down here by the railroad track I was scared half to death. They had no modern appliances, and I made up my mind that they were going to give me a terrible struggle of it, but it was nothing of the sort. The mob swung me off from a telegraph pole like they would a log, and then one or two of them pulled my legs. That isn’t so almighty nice, but still it don’t hurt as you might think it would.
I must have been there ten or fifteen minutes before the Sheriff and his posse found me and cut me down.
Of course by that time I was unconscious, but I remembered enough of what occurred to banish any fear that I might have of death on the gallows. It’s death in whatever form it comes that I object to.
If I have got to go I had just as soon go by the rope as by the bullet, and I had a good deal rather go by the rope than by the knife or by poison.
You can say this much for the information and comfort of all the poor fellows who will have to swing when I am gone. Tell them to brace up and take it easy. They are going to die easier deaths than three-fourths of the fat old Judges who sentence them, and who expect to die in their beds.
There has been altogether too much writing and talking on the subject of the barbarity of the gallows. I’m in favor of abolishing capital punishment myself, but if a man must die, what’s the use of being too particular about the mode, so long as you have got a good enough scheme now?
Baker also gave his own version of the events that led to his death sentence. It should be said that his “kill or be killed” spin quite attenuates the court’s finding that Baker only wounded Unruh in their altercation, but then chased his bleeding cuckold down as far as a quarter-mile from the house to deliver the coup de grace.
Under all the circumstances my crime was not murder, anyway. I had become involved in a quarrel between Unruh and his wife, and, foolish as that was, it would have led to nothing more if Unruh had not attacked me. I had to kill him or be killed.
The woman swore against me in order to save herself. She was scared to death because they lynched me, and she was afraid that unless somebody swung for the crime she might be called on some dark night.
But whether my crime was deliberate murder or not, I think I have been punished enough. It is more than a year since the mob lynched me, and since that time I have lived with a rope around my neck all the time.
As I have said to you, my sufferings when I was being resuscitated were greater than they were when I was hanging. It took me three months to get over the effects of the lynching. Two or three times a day my brain would be in a whirl, and I would lose all control of myself. Then when I slept I would go through it all again.
At length, when I was brought to trial and was convicted and sentenced to death, I had th erope once more before me.
The anxiety about the trial, and later about my appeals, has worn on me until my nerves are in about as bad a condition as they were when I was in the hospital at Santa Fe, and the old complaint from which I suffered when I was recovering from the lynching has returned again.
I haven’t slept for months without hanging by the neck through it all. Can you imagine what it is to be conscious all the time of dangling in that way? Asleep or awake I have a rope about my neck, and I know exactly how it feels.
I think I have had enough of it, but as they seem to think not in these parts I suppose I shall have to take some more.
I can tell you, though, that I don’t want anybody to bring me to life this time.
When I go out tomorrow I will know just what is coming, and when I tell the Sheriff to let me slide I will be the first man in America who has lived a year and a half to say that a second time to a hangman.
This same article says — though this already sounds like folklore — that Baker went fearlessly to the gallows, and his last words were addressed to the hangman as he adusted the knot around Baker’s neck: “That’s right. I have been in the habit of having it a little higher up.”
On this date in 1683,* Yaoya Oshichi gave her life for her red-hot love … and the want of a little white lie.
The greengrocer’s daughter Oshichi (English Wikipedia page | Japanese) legendarily fell in love with a priest of the nearby temple while taking refuge there during one of Edo’s many fires (Japanese link), and in a truly adolescent outburst proceeded to start another fire in the hopes of meeting him again. (Alternate version: it was Oshichi’s gesture that actually started the linked conflagration.)
As a 16-year-old, Oshichi was just barely eligible to suffer the full weight of the law for a capital crime.
In an age of scanty documentation, however, the pitying magistrate (Japanese link) hearing her case is supposed to have asked her in a hinting sort of way, “you’re 15, right?”
Either not catching his drift or else honest to a fault, Oshichi replied that, no, she was 16, thank you very much, and reiterated the point when it was followed-up … thus dooming herself to the stake.
Yaoya Oshichi’s execution.
A few years after this outstandingly tragic demise, poet Ihara Saikaku popularized the tale in his Five Women Who Loved. She’s been waxing immortal ever since in every manner of artistic interpretation, and remains a popular figure for joruri and bunraku and kabuki.
(When next in Tokyo, pay your own respects at her tomb.)
Meanwhile, Yaoya Oshichi’s apparent birth in the zodiacal “fire horse” year of 1666 — fire horses are supposed to be an especially passionate, impulsive bunch — followed by her unfortunate fiery end helps make such cycles superstitiously inauspicious for prospective parents, especially prospective parents of girls.
The year of a fire horse only rolls around once every six decades; in the last one, in 1966, Japanese “fertility dropped by over 25%;” even “the fertility rate of Japanese Americans in California and Hawaii also dropped by 3.3% and 1.8%, respectively, in the same year.”** The abortion rate in Japan for that one year spiked nearly 50% above expected without any other apparent cause.† It’s something to watch for when the next batch of little fire horses are due, in 2026.
* “The 29th day of the 3rd month” is widely cited as “March 29″, but it actually appears to refer to the 29th day of the 3rd month of the third year of the “Heaven’s Blessing” era. That third month spanned the Gregorian dates of March 28 through April 26, 1683.
** Jungmin Lee and Myungho Paik, “Sex Preferences and Fertility in South Korea during the Year of the Horse,” Demography, Vol. 43, No. 2 (May, 2006).
† Kanae Kaku, “Increased induced abortion rate in 1966, an aspect of Japanese folk superstition,” Annals of Human Biology, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1975).
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
Bad women are the cause of my being in this position…with all due respect to women, I must say they have brought me to ruin … I implore you all to abstain from evil habits. Especially beware of bad women.”
— Lovett Brookins, convicted of murder, hanging, Georgia.
Executed April 16, 1897
Brookins, a teacher, met the gallows smoking cigarettes. Before the drop, he prayed and sang. The high-ranking Freemason received the death penalty for murdering his mistress, Leila McCrary, and a man named Sanders Oliphant.