Posts filed under 'Treason'

1865: Stanislaw Brzoska, Polish patriot priest

Add comment May 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Freedom-fighting Polish priest Stanislaw Brzoska was hanged in the marketplace of Sokolow Podlaski on this date in 1865.

A young firebrand who had already served time in a Russian fortress because of his nationalist harangues, Brzoska (English Wikipedia entry | Polish) put his faith into deeds with the 1863 January Uprising against Russia’s domination of what was once the Polish-Lithuanian Empire.

He fought in several battles, and a 40-man mounted unit he had personally raised was in the field until the end of 1864 — well after Russia had quelled most other resistance.

Finally cornered in April 1865 and captured in a gunfight, he was executed before a crowd of thousands. Later generations, with an independent Poland to call their own, have garlanded Brzoska’s memory with various markers and statues.

Polish speakers might enjoy this presentation of the hero-priest’s life:

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1929: Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck, wrecker

Add comment May 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On or about this date in 1929, Russian railway magnate Nikolaus (Nikolai) Karlovich von Meck was shot as a saboteur.

Von Meck (Russian link) had the iron horse in his blood: his father Karl was among Russia’s first railroad-builders after the Crimean War clock-cleaning motivated the tsar to make with the modernizing.

While von Meck pere was busy laying crossties in the 1860s, the St. Petersburg Conservatory was germinating the young composer Tchaikovsky. In time, the two men would be linked by the union of their kin: our man Nikolaus Karlovich von Meck married Tchaikovsky’s niece, Anna.

It wasn’t just a glancing association with the musical colossus for the von Mecks. Karl’s widow — Nikolaus’s mother — Nadezhda was Tchaikovsky’s main financial patron for 13 years. They weren’t lovers: Tchaikovsky was gay, and the reclusive Nadezhda von Meck demanded as a condition of her patronage that they never meet. But they kept up a voluminous correspondence, and Tchaikovsksy dedicated several works to her — like this Sympohony No. 4 in F minor.

So Nikolaus von Meck was the genius’s patron’s son as well as the genius’s niece’s husband.

He was also a brilliant engineer and entrepreneur in his own right; over the 26 years preceding the Russian Revolution, he chaired the Moscow-Kazan Railway firm that his father had begun back in the 1860s. Under the son’s leadership its rail-mileage multiplied more than tenfold. He was also one of Russia’s first motorists.

Von Meck remained in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, continuing to work on developing the now-Soviet state’s rail infrastructure — his means reduced, he remained no less the conscientious and patriotic artificer. That held even after the man was arrested as a counter-revolutionary a few different times in the revolution’s early years; each time he was soon released.

But by the late 1920s, Stalin was in full control and the industrialist would become the first subject of a new Soviet law against “wreckers”.

Ostensibly designed to target the saboteurs that were supposedly retarding economic growth, it would prove its utility in the frightful years ahead as a first-rate instrument of the Terror. The prospect that any economic setback, inefficiency or controversy could be lethally attributed to a cabal of global capitalists intent on strangling communism in the crib made “wrecking” as flexible and as devastating a charge as witchcraft had once been. How do you even begin to rebut that? Wrecking would in time be attributed to innumerable purge victims, great and small, and an implied whip against every worker who might be slacking on his production quota.

This potent juridical apparatus went for its first spin in the North Caucuses city of Shakhty in 1928-29. The Shakhty Trial of 53 engineers and technicians as “wreckers” also has the distinction of being Stalin’s first show trial. Von Meck and four other men* were condemned to die, a comparatively modest harvest of blood next to what was to come; 44 others went to prison.

“What accomplished villains these old engineers were! What diabolical ways to sabotage they found!” Solzhenitsyn mused of those luckless soulsin The Gulag Archipelago.

Nikolai Karlovich von Meck of the People’s Commissariat of Railroads, pretended to be terribly devoted to the development of the new economy, and would hold forth for hours on end about the economic problems involved in the construction of socialism, and he loved to give advice. One such pernicious piece of advice was to increase the size of freight trains and not worry about heavier than average loads. The GPU [forerunner of the NKVD, which in turn became the KGB -ed.] exposed von Meck, and he was shot: his objective had been to wear out rails and roadbeds, freight cars and locomotives, so as to leave the Republic without railroads in case of foreign military intervention! When, not long afterward, the new People’s Commissar of Railroads, Comrade Kaganovich, ordered that average loads should be increased, and even doubled and tripled them (and for this discovery received the Order of Lenin along with others of our leaders) — the malicious engineers who protested became known as limiters. They raised the outcry that this was too much, and would result in the breakdown of the rolling stock, and they were rightly shot for their lack of faith in the possibilities of socialist transport.

Nikolaus and Anna’s daughter Galina Nikolayevna von Meck — who did time in Siberian exile herself in the 1930s — wrote a memoir of her famous family in 1973, As I Remember Them.

* Notably Peter Palchinsky, whose life is dealt with in some detail in Loren Graham’s The Ghost of the Executed Engineer: Technology and the Fall of the Soviet Union.

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1865: Not Lambdin P. Milligan, ex parte man

Add comment May 19th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1865 was the originally scheduled hanging of Indiana pro-slavery gadfly Lambdin P. Milligan — a sentence respited two days prior by President Andrew Johnson, and then subsequently commuted, for which reason Milligan survived to attach his surname to a landmark Supreme Court decision the following year.

During the Civil War, the state of Kentucky was a borderlands claimed by, and viciously fought over, by both North and South. “I hope to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky,” Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1861.

Kentucky’s northern neighbor, the Union breadbasket Indiana, had little fighting and no hint of Confederate power — but it was a hotbed of so-called “Copperheads”, northern Democrats who opposed Lincoln’s willingness to prosecute the civil war. So fraught was the Hoosier political situation that in 1862, Indiana’s Republican governor refused to call the Democrat-dominated legislature for fear that it might vote a secession bill or attempt to withdraw Indiana from the war.

The inevitable existence of northern domestic opposition to the war came joined at the hip to impossible statecraft conundrums. Just how much wartime dissent and/or resistance could be countenanced — as a legal matter, and a practical one? President Lincoln would not have received an A+ from the American Civil Liberties Union; he suspended the writ of habeas corpus in the Union and resorted to military tribunals and martial law in some places.

Our man Milligan was one of these Copperhead Indiana Democrats born to test Washington’s elasticity. He was an exponent of the Knights of the Golden Circle,* a pro-slavery secret society whose name denoted their aspiration to the antebellum filibusters‘ dream of a human-bondage empire to ring the Caribbean basin.

An attorney,** Milligan briefly became the toast of Democrats nationwide (whatever was left of the nation) for his robust defense of Clement Vallandigham when the former Congressman was prosecuted under the anti-Copperhead General Order 38.

At this point, Milligan was very well-known in what was then called the Northwest, and he was a major political player in Indiana — a pivotal state in the 1864 election.

But according to federal spies who tailed him in 1863-64, his interests in governance ran to more illicit grants of state power. Milligan was arrested in October 1864 as a principal in what was dubbed the “Northwestern Conspiracy”: a plot to mobilize the antiwar factions in that part of the country. This was no mere matter of pamphleteering; the “visionary and desperate” scheme aimed to prolong the hopes of the now-fading South by instigating an armed uprising in the Northwest that would relieve Union pressure on Dixie and perhaps turn the tide of the war.

Milligan was among several of the conspirators swept up in arrests in the following weeks, then tried by military tribunal for treason and sedition. It’s hard to argue that the plot was anything but.

But why a military court? This is the question in Milligan’s great legacy to posterity, the Supreme Court ruling Ex Parte Milligan.†

Milligan himself was not a soldier, and had not been in a war zone. He was a civilian, and Indiana’s regular civilian courts had never ceased to function. The question at stake in Milligan’s appeal to the Supreme Court was whether there was any legitimate recourse to a military tribunal under such conditions — well behind the lines, as it were.

On the morning of March 5, 1866, 34-year-old Republican U.S. Representative James Garfield — the future president whose assassin would command contentious caselaw all his own — strode into the U.S. Supreme Court to eloquently argue Milligan’s side.

“Such a doctrine,” Garfield intoned of the civilian courts’ being intentionally bypassed on national security grounds, “is too monstrous to be tolerated for a moment; and I trust and believe that … it will receive its just and final condemnation. Your decision will mark an era in American history. the just and final settlement of this great question will take a high place among the great achievements which have immortalized this decade. It will establish forever this truth, of inestimable value to us and to mankind, that a republic can wield the vast enginery of war without breaking down the safeguards of liberty; can suppress insurrection, and put down rebellion, however formidable, without destroying the bulwarks of law; can, by the might of its armed millions, preserve and defend both nationality and liberty … if the protection of the law shall, by your decision, be extended over every acre of our peaceful territory, you will have rendered the great decision of the century.

The high court found for Milligan unanimously, establishing as a constitutional bedrock Garfield’s proffered principle that civilian courts must try civilians wherever those courts are open, and ordered Milligan’s release. Although re-indicted by a civilian grand jury, Milligan was not re-prosecuted; he resumed his law practice and died near Fort Wayne, Indiana on December 21, 1899.

* Also known as the Sons of Liberty, a callback to revolutionary patriots.

** Milligan studied law in Ohio, his native soil; his class of nine also included Edwin M. Stanton — Lincoln’s War Secretary during the events of this post. Milligan himself reflected that “I should have probably been hung” but for his fortuitous ancient friendship with Stanton.

† Court precedents with names like Furman v. Georgia are most familiar to us, signifying two disputing parties; by contrast, the phrase ex parte (by/for the party) theoretically indicates a decision issued on behalf of the named party, without need of any opposing party’s intervention. (Ex parte Quirin is another notable death penalty case using this terminology.)

While the ex parte locution was once a common one for habeas corpus appeals, such cases were in practice almost invariably contested by some organ of the state — as Milligan’s was.

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1536: Anne Boleyn’s supposed lovers

3 comments May 17th, 2015 Headsman

Beware, trust not in the vanity of the world, and especially in the flattering of the court … if I had followed God’s word in deed as I did read it and set it forth to my power, I had not come to this.

-From the last statement of George Boleyn

This was the execution date in 1536 of Anne Boleyn‘s co-accused, the undercard to the deposed queen’s beheading.

It was the accusation of adultery that furnished Anne’s downfall; some adulterers were perforce required. These were William Brereton, Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston, Mark Smeaton … and the ex-queen’s own brother, George Boleyn.

They had just days prior been subjected to a trial whose outcome was a foregone conclusion. All pleaded their innocence save Smeaton, a commoner court musician who could not withstand torture and “admitted” fooling around with Queen Anne.*

Along with Smeaton, three gentlemen-doomed plucked from the Tudor court’s shadowy recesses — joined to the legendary queen at the chopping-block, if not very probably in her bed.

  • Norris, the Groom of the Stool
  • Weston, a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber
  • Brereton, a Groom of the Privy Chamber

“Everyone was moved at their misfortune, especially at the case of Weston, who was young and of old lineage and high accomplishments,” one contemporary recorded of the fearful pall cast upon King Henry’s court by the purge. “But no one dared plead for him, except his mother, who, oppressed with grief, petitioned the King, and his wife, who offered rents and goods for his deliverance.”

The most egregious charge, naturally, did not concern these men. To put the fallen queen beyond the reach of sympathy it was alleged that she

following daily her frail and carnal lust … procured and incited her own natural brother, Geo. Boleyn, lord Rocheford, gentleman of the privy chamber, to violate her, alluring him with her tongue in the said George’s mouth, and the said George’s tongue in hers, and also with kisses, presents, and jewels; whereby he, despising the commands of God, and all human laws, violated and carnally knew the said Queen, his own sister, at Westminster; which he also did on divers other days before and after at the same place, sometimes by his own procurement and sometimes by the Queen’s.

This outrageous smear on the extremely specious grounds that big brother “had been once found a long time with her, and with certain other little follies,” invited as much skepticism among the Boleyns’ contemporaries as it does for posterity. Even after Anne had been condemned for adultery and incest in her stage-managed trial, George — the last of the bunch to face the tribunal — fought his corner so vigorously “that several of those present wagered 10 to 1 that he would be acquitted, especially as no witnesses were produced against either him or her, as it is usual to do, particularly when the accused denies the charge.”

A foolish bet, but perhaps one placed from a position of willful hope. If a peer of the realm could be condemned a traitor for hanging out with his sister, then no Henrician nobleman could hope to sleep securely.

Little could their dread fathom the bloody years to come. Many who saw the Boleyns’ heads drop would in time have cause to make of their gambling winnings a purse to tip their own executioners.

Thomas Cromwell, who engineered the Boleyn faction’s fall, outlived it by barely four years. The Earl of Surrey, who sat in judgment on this occasion, lost his head in 1547; his father the Duke of Norfolk,** who was the presiding judge, only avoided execution because Henry VIII died hours before Norfolk was to go to the block. George Boleyn’s wife, Lady Rochford, is supposed to have provided evidence against him; she was later swept up in the fall of Catherine Howard and beheaded for her trouble on that occasion.

But those were tragedies for later days.

In the spring of 1536, from his window in the Tower, the poet Thomas Wyatt witnessed this date’s executions: the young Anne’s last lover before the king descended on her, Wyatt too had been initially implicated in debauching the queen and he was fortunate not to be among their number. (Wyatt’s son would not be as lucky.) The shaken Wyatt wrote his fellow courtiers’ heartbreaking eulogy, and perhaps that of his era too, in his verse reflection on that terrible fall from fortune. (Via)

V. Innocentia
Veritas Viat Fides
Circumdederunt
me inimici mei

by Sir Thomas Wyatt, the Elder

Who list his wealth and ease retain,
Himself let him unknown contain.
Press not too fast in at that gate
Where the return stands by disdain,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.†

The high mountains are blasted oft
When the low valley is mild and soft.
Fortune with Health stands at debate.
The fall is grievous from aloft.
And sure, circa Regna tonat.

These bloody days have broken my heart.
My lust, my youth did them depart,
And blind desire of estate.
Who hastes to climb seeks to revert.
Of truth, circa Regna tonat.

The bell tower showed me such sight
That in my head sticks day and night.
There did I learn out of a grate,
For all favour, glory, or might,
That yet circa Regna tonat.

By proof, I say, there did I learn:
Wit helpeth not defence too yerne,
Of innocency to plead or prate.
Bear low, therefore, give God the stern,
For sure, circa Regna tonat.

* In the Tower awaiting execution, Anne would voice worry for Smeaton’s soul when she learned that he had failed to retract this confession at the block. But Smeaton and all the men were beheaded in preference to a sentence of drawing and quartering, and had reason to be cautious about their comportment on the scaffold lest crueler torments be reinstated for them.

** Norfolk was Anne Boleyn’s uncle.

Circa Regna tonat: “Around the throne it thunders”, from Seneca’s Phaedra.

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1432: Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola, scheming condottiero

Add comment May 5th, 2015 Headsman

Italian mercenary Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola was beheaded on this date in 1432.

The successful condottiero was defined by a mixture of battlefield success and cutthroat scheming, and it was his clumsiness with the latter that did in Carmagnola.

His name denotes his origin, from a town in the Piedmont where despite his low birth, his talents raised him to a command for Filippo Maria Visconti‘s brutally successful campaign* to reunite his father’s divided patrimony and make the Duchy of Milan a peninsular power.

So you might think that Carmagnola stood to reap ample rewards for fastening himself to a rising star. But Visconti, perhaps fearing the prospect of a subordinate accumulating enough power to mount a coup d’etat, used a niggardly hand with the emoluments that his general was anticipating — and this led Carmagnola to ditch the Duchy and make an arrangement with its rival, Venice.

The turncoat had the satisfaction of smashing his former Milanese mates at the 1427 Battle of Maclodio, a battle that helped to achieve for Serene Republic its largest-ever Italian territorial expanse.

But his failure to follow up the victory aggressively soon tested the patience of his new patrons. After a sort interval of peace, Venice resumed war with Milan in 1431, and here Carmagnola dilated unacceptably (Italian link), failing to advance on Cremona and instead proposing to winter his army — in August.

The Venetian Council of Ten also caught wind that Carmagnola was maintaining a secret correspondence with Milan and exploring the prospect of changing teams yet again.

Determined to have done with the snake, it summoned him back to Venice under the pretense of convening a war council for the 1432 campaign season. He arrived to find that it was too late in the day to meet the Doge, but as he started for his gondola to retire one of the Venetian gentlemen who had been sent to meet him instead directed his steps away.

“That is not my way,” Carmagnola objected.

“Yes, yes, this is your right path,” the man insisted — and Bussone, beholding him gesturing to the yawning gate of the Piombi dungeon, could only exclaim, “I am lost!”


The arrest of Francesco Bussone da Carmagnola

He was beheaded as a traitor between the scenic columns of San Marco and San Todaro. His widow returned to Milan and eventually repatriated the late commander’s remains to his native soil.

* Carmagnola left a nasty legacy to the world’s architectural heritage during this time by collapsing the Trezzo sull’Adda Bridge, the widest-spanning single-arch bridge ever built before the industrial age.

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1606: Henry Garnet, Gunpowder Plot confessor

Add comment May 3rd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1606, the English Jesuit Henry Garnet was hanged, drawn and quartered in the churchyard of Old St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Garnet, “the prime scholar of Winchester College” as a gifted young student, left England to enter the Society of Jesus and study under Robert Bellarmine, a theologian so Catholic that he would later bring the hammer down on Galileo’s heliocentrism.

After eleven years in letters on the continent, the Society called Garnet to return to England in 1586 as the lead missionary to his native realm’s Catholic minority. It was a lonely burden for Garnet, especially after his opposite number Robert Southwell was arrested in 1592. (Southwell, too, went to the scaffold.) But Garnet carried it off as well as anyone. He remained free for nearly twenty years — creating an underground press and numerous illegal cells.

“Under his care the Jesuits in the English mission increased from one to forty, and that not a single letter of complaint, it is said, was sent to headquarters against him,” lauds the Catholic Encyclopedia.

Theologically, Garnet was noted for his defense of the doctrine of equivocation — that is (in the hostile reading of its Protestant interlocutors) of finding hair-splitting rationales for lying. It was an intellectual exercise of many centuries’ vintage, but for England’s beleaguered Catholics it was as urgent as life and death. Most specifically, this doctrine reckoned an oath insufficient to compel a truthful response to official inquiries as to the whereabouts and activities of fellow-Catholics who’d be liable with discovery to attain martyrdom. The liberal definition of “truth” to include an outright lie with a “secret meaning reserved in [one’s] mind” was obviously ripe for the scorn of persecutors for whom it was little but treason neatly clothed.

Knock, knock! Who’s there, in th’ other devil’s name?
Faith, here’s an equivocator that could swear in both
the scales against either scale, who committed
treason enough for God’s sake, yet could not
equivocate to heaven. O, come in, equivocator.

-Macbeth (c. 1606), Act 2, Scene 3

Much of Garnet’s last weeks in custody ahead of his execution were spent in harrowing the doctrine of equivocation; indeed, this is even the very last exchange he had with doctors of the English church sent to accompany him.

One of those standing near him then asked him, “Whether he still held the same opinion as he had formerly expressed about equivocation, and whether he thought it lawful to equivocate at the point of death?” He refused to give an opinion at that time; and the Dean of St. Paul’s sharply inveighing against equivocation, and saying that seditious doctrine of that kind was the parent of all such impious treasons and designs as those for which he suffered, Garnet said, “that how equivocation was lawful, and when, he had shewn his mind elsewhere, and that he should, at any rate, use no equivocation now.”

There were nevertheless equivocations that Garnet would never countenance. His A Treatise of Christian Renunciation, compiling quotes from Church fathers detailing the things a good Catholic must be prepared to renounce for his faith, excoriated those who attended Anglican chuches. Their pretense, he said, was nothing but their own comfort.

Certaine private persons, who have wholly addicted them selves to make them Gods either of their belly and ease, or of the wicked mammon, setting God behind all things which may delight them … refuse also to beleeve that the do amisse …

Judas with a kisse dost thou betray me? amongst hereticks dost thou professe me? no other place to professe chastity, but in the bedd of a harlott?

Harried as they were, England’s Catholics greeted with anticipation the 1603 accession of King James: raised Protestant, but the son of the Catholic Mary, Queen of Scots. Garnet shared Catholics’ hope that James would ease off harassment of the Old Faith; he even authorized the betrayal of fellow-Catholics’ regicidal Bye Plot as a show of loyalty and to pre-empt a possible backlash. “Quiete et pacifice,” he begged.

But toleration was still not quickly forthcoming, and soon Catholics had reverted to “a stage of desperation.” James was only in his thirties: would the trials be neverending?

Garnet continued endeavouring to keep Catholics calm and give the new sovereign the political space necessary to relax persecution. But many of his flock soon tired of quiete et pacifice.

In 1605, there would be another try — one that is still remember, remembered to this day.

Here Garnet again gets into hot water with theological doctrine. Garnet caught indirect wind of Guy Fawkes’ terrorist plot — but he heard it kind-of-sort-of under the seal of the confessional: another priest who himself had heard the design under confession told it to Garnet in a more ambiguous circumstance.

Garnet’s excuses here might strike the reader as far too fine; certainly that is how his prosecutors viewed it. The circumstances of the plot’s revelation certainly appeared to give the priest enough leave to find a way to reveal it, especially since he knew about it for many months before that almost-fateful Fifth of November. Garnet seems to have wanted the resolution — or loathed to plant another Judas-kiss. Maybe he thought his exhortations could stop it without anyone winding up drawn on a hurdle. Maybe, after 19 furtive years knowing every morning that his next sleep might be in a dungeon, his heart of hearts wanted to see it to go ahead.

When the attempt to explosively decapitate the English state was discovered Garnet was hunted to ground; his last days of “liberty” were spent stuffed in a coffin-sized priest hole at Hindlip Hall before the “customs of nature which must of necessity be done” finally forced him to out into the sight of his captors.

His fate looks like a foregone conclusion in retrospect, but Garnet did fight it — for two months before his condemnation, and five more weeks after from trial until his execution during which he maneuvered to exculpate himself. (See Investigating Gunpowder Treason for an Since English law of course did not recognize the seal of the confessional, the most charitable reading of Garnet’s own admissions start at misprision of treason. It is but a single step from there to the scaffold if one supposes his long silence shrouded any sort of approval of or aid to the plotters.

Garnet received the mercy of being hanged to death before he was cut down for the public butchery part of his sentence.

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1634: Mikhail Borisovich Shein, for failing to take Smolensk

Add comment April 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1634, the Russian general Mikhail Borisovich Shein was executed on Red Square for losing to the Poles.

Shein (English Wikipedia entry | Russian) was an accomplished boyar officer who had made his bones during Russia’s Time of Troubles.

During the Time of Troubles — 15 war-torn years following the end of Ivan the Terrible‘s dynasty — the neighboring Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had eagerly exploited Russia’s chaos, invading Russia, backing an imposter who tried to claim the throne, and at last settling for tearing off a chunk of territory in war.

By the 1630s, Russia had her shit back together under the first Romanov tsar, and when the Polish king died in 1632 saw an opportunity to return stripe for stripe on its opportunistic neighbor.

This was the Smolensk War, so named because the recapture of that city was its primary objective. Shein, the respected elder military statesman who had lost Smolensk to a Polish siege twenty-odd years before, was just the man to lead the campaign.

The span of time tested by the 1632-1633 Russian siege was not merely that measured by the larder of Smolensk’s vastly outnumbered garrison — but that of Poland-Lithuania’s unwieldy succession process. Although the successor king was self-evident, the span required for his actual election left a six-month interregnum: nothing compared to the Time of Troubles, but perhaps enough for a frontier reversal.

But as it happened, Shein could not force Smolensk’s capitulation in 1633 and by the latter half of that year a superior Polish army was arriving. By October of 1633, a year after the Russians had begun hostilities, not only was the siege of Smolensk broken, but the Russian camp itself was encircled by the Poles. Having no prospect of a relief force such had just delivered his enemies, Shein could not hold out for even a single Friedman Unit and soon surrendered. He received liberal terms: the Russians had to abandon their artillery, but Shein’s army returned to Moscow unharmed, with its standards.


The Surrender of the Russian Garrison of Smolensk before Vladislaus IV Vasa of Poland, by an unknown Polish artist (c. 1634)

Having seen their jolly war of choice come to such a humilitating pass, the Moscow boyars received their defeated commander in a rage. A tribunal vengefully condemned Shein, his second-in-command Artemii Vasilevich Izmailov, and Izmailov’s son Vasili, to death for treason and incompetence in command.

(According to Nancy Kollmann, a German scholar present in Russia in 1634 recorded that the execution took the men by surprise, as they had been led to believe that they would receive a last-minute commutation.)

In even the most slightly longer term, the debacle proved to be only a minor strategic setback. Poland was unable to follow up its victory with any inroads on Russian soil. That June, the two belligerents came to a peace restoring the status quo ante bellum — and they managed to pass a whole generation before they fought again.

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1945: Robert Limpert, Ansbach antifascist

Add comment April 18th, 2015 Headsman

The ferocious commitment of the Third Reich to fight to the last man even when World War II provided the occasion (or the pretext) for many of that bloody conflict’s most poignant and pointless deaths.

In these execution-focused pages we have seen the death penalty meted out to ideological enemies whom the Nazis hastened to dispose of in their last hours; almost infinitely more numerous were everyday people who by Berlin’s Götterdämmerung were made so much meat for the ordnance of the advancing Allies.

On this date in 1945, Robert Limpert’s effort to avoid the latter fate for his native Ansbach caused him to suffer the pangs of an entirely gratuitous execution.

Only 19 years old, Limpert had been disqualified from even desperate war’s-end military conscription by a severe heart problem.

He had made little secret of his antiwar views in the earlier years of the war. Even so, it was a deep shock while he was studying at the University of Wurzburg to see that ancient city devastated by a March 16 bombing raid that claimed 5,000 lives and destroyed most of its historic center.

He wandered back to Ansbach horrified, and sure that this city ought not share Wurzburg’s ordeal.

By April 18, American troops were just a few kilometers from the town. Limpert had spent the night before surreptitiously distributing pamphlets calling for a bloodless surrender, as he had on several earlier days. (Sample rhetoric: “Death to the Nazi hangmen.”)

According to Stephen Fritz, who describes this story in detail in his Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, Ansbach was in a state of near-collapse that Wednesday. Party officials were discreetly discarding their soon-to-be-incriminating insignia, and crowds jostled each other to loot canned goods for the prospective months of want ahead.

Though the Ansbach populace was violently hostile to the idea of inviting bombardment by fighting the Americans, word was that the rigorous commandant, Col. Ernst Meyer, did indeed mean to do so. Trying to prevent a disaster from befalling his city, Limpert that morning cut the telephone wires from the Col. Meyer’s command post to the nearby troops at the front — an act observed and reported by two diligent Hitler Youth.

What followed was a cruel exertion of a military machine aggrieved by Limpert’s entirely well-founded lese-majeste. The cut wire didn’t matter at all because the command post had already been abandoned. But it was reported, and policemen and bureaucrats began mindlessly following procedures. “In the chaos, nothing would have been easier than to drop the matter quietly and let Limpert go,” Fritz observes.

Meyer was frenetically trying to organize defenses that did not want to be organized and by the time he caught wind of of the Limpert investigation he was fit to be tied.

“For me,” he said later, “there was no doubt that I had found the man who had already engaged in treason for the past eight days [pamphleting against the war] … While forward in the front lines … brave soldiers risked their lives to defend the homeland, a coward attacked them in the back. I now had to act. I said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ll now immediately form a court-martial …’ Silence everywhere. I had the impression of a certain helplessness.” (Fritz, again)

Meyer’s aides were reluctant to speak. It was obvious that the Americans would occupy Ansbach with hours, but also obvious that an insufficiency of zeal could have any one of them shot on the spot. One or two of them hesitatingly suggested further investigation — an overtly correct notion that would be tantamount to dropping the case under the circumstances.

Meyer brusquely announced, “I sentence Limpert to death by hanging; the sentence will be carried out immediately.” According to Zippold [a constable], Meyer also declared that the entire Limpert family would be executed, whereupon both policem[e]n rushed to their defense. Unwilling to press the issue, Meyer said curtly, “We don’t have any time, let’s get going.”

In NS-Offizier war ich nicht, Col. Meyer’s daughter, Ute Althaus, grapples with his perspective on Limpert’s hanging — which Meyer always felt was justified.

It was past 1 in the afternoon when Meyer stalked out to the entrance of the city hall to conduct the execution personally. While all of Ansbach, all of the western front, sabotaged his frenzied defense of the Reich, Meyer had this boy at his mercy. The colonel poured all of his rectitude and despair into taking away at least this one life.

Nevertheless, Meyer was not an executioner. Nothing was ready for his improvised hanging, and while the colonel tied up the nearest rope he could get someone to fetch him, Robert Limpert twisted away and escaped. He made it maybe 100 yards: no bystander dared to answer his pleas for help as he was tackled, kicked, and dragged back to his gallows.

The story has it that Meyer, after hanging Limpert twice — the noose broke the first time — pinned some of the treasonable pamphlets to the body, then immediately hopped on a bicycle and fled directly out of town. Maybe the folklore has become a bit exaggerated on that point … but he can’t have stayed much longer. The Americans were there by supper time to cut Robert Limpert’s body down.

Today, several plaques in Ansbach honor Limpert.

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1355: Filippo Calendario and Bertuccio Isarello, Doge stooges

Add comment April 16th, 2015 Headsman

This date in 1355 was the morning after the failed coup of Venetian Doge Marino Faliero. And it was the first date that vengeance began to fall upon the plotters.

Faliero, voted power by the fellow-noblemen who bossed the Serene Republic, intended to displace the patrician class with commoner support. The scheme called for Faliero’s supporters secretly to mobilize hundreds of men who on April 15 would gather at the Piazza San Marco and mount their surprise takeover. But the plot sank like a stone on the big day, with anticipated adherents turning out sparsely or flatly declining and word soon reaching aristocratic ears of trouble afoot. The would-be masters of Venice were soon rounded up without resistance by the real masters of Venice.

In this misfired drama, Faliero’s henchmen — the men to whom the task of orchestrating the cells who would summon the traitor militia — were Filippo Calendario and Bertuccio Isarello. And on this, the following day, they tried, sentenced, and by evening hung from upper windows of the Ducal Palace. Both men were gagged: one last precaution against the sort of popular exhortation that they had not managed when it counted.

“The earth was set in motion,” one chronicler recorded of the Venetian establishment’s reaction to the menace. (Source) Faliero would die the next day; in all, eleven gibbeted corpses festooned the palace as a warning against the next aspirant.

Isarello was the captain of a Venetian galley who had been appointed by Faliero — controversially bypassing the usual noble prerogatives — and had rewarded his prince by expertly harrying Genoese merchantmen.

Calendario (English Wikipedia entry | the more detailed German), Isarello’s father-in-law, was a stonemason, sculptor and architect who actually worked on the very palace he was hanged from.


Column capital of Drunken Noah dating from the period of Calendario’s work on the Venetian Ducal Palace. (cc) image from Honza Beran.

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1322: Bartholomew de Badlesmere

Add comment April 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1322, Bartholomew de Badlesmere, the first (of only two) Baron Badlesmere,

The barons in the dangerous age of Edward II were marked by where they made their political allegiances between the king and his rival the Earl of Lancaster.

Badlesmere? He … evolved.

The man could tack to the wind with the very best of them, or the very worst; he was reviled as the Benedict Arnold of 14th century England for chickenheartedly failing to protect the Earl of Gloucester when the latter impetuously charged to his death at Bannockburn. As a bard of the time put it,

This is the traitorous man Bartholomew, whom in all victories may God confound, because he has been to his master as changeable as a pharisee. Hence, as the representative of Judas, he shall be condemned to death … because he refused to come to his master’s support this traitor has deserved to be put to the rack … deserved to suffer judgment of decapitation.

As the 1320s began, he was a stalwart of what has been termed the “Middle Party”, whose position vis-a-vis Edward and Lancsaster was what you would expect from the name.

Badlesmere badly misplayed a strong hand by defecting in the so-called “Despenser War” to the anti-Edwardian party, even though Lancaster pretty much hated his guts — and now the king did, too,* dissipating any mutual goodwill that might have been earned a few years before when the king’s favorite (and the war’s namesake) Hugh Despenser went and rescued Badlesmere’s wife from an attack.

And unlike at Bannockburn, Badlesmere here stepped into the trap rather than out of it.

Lancaster’s party was decisively defeated on March 16, 1322 at the Battle of Boroughbridge.

Days after the battle, Badlesmere was caught skulking in a glade by the Earl of Mar and shipped to Canterbury for trial. He was condemned to death on this date, and sent directly from court to a hurdle dragged by a horse to Blean three miles away, where he was hanged and beheaded. He was one of 20 or so lords and knights Edward had put to death.

Lancaster himself was another — although a “Contrariant” whom he didn’t execute, Roger Mortimer, would make Edward regret his clemency by overthrowing the king four years later.

* In an affair that Edward II biographer Kathryn Warner thinks was neatly contrived by the king, his Queen Isabella called on Badlesmere’s wife when the latter held Leeds Castle sans husband. Lady Badlesmere refused to admit the queen, giving Edward a welcome excuse for besieging a fortress holding out against its sovereign.

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