1653: Sakura Sogoro, righteous peasant

Add comment September 3rd, 2017 Headsman

Perhaps on this date in 1653 — it is, at any rate, the date saluted by a festival that honors him — the peasant Sakura Sogoro was crucified for protesting the oppressive taxation of his local lord.

Sogoro — familiarly known as Sogo-sama — was a village head man who dared to take his complaints about his daimyo‘s heavy hand right to the shogun himself. As punishment for this effrontery, the daimyo had the peasant executed (which punishment the sacrificial Sogoro anticipated in making his appeal) along with his wife and sons (which was an outrage).

As classically described, Sogoro from the cross damns the cruelty of the punishment and promises to revenge himself as a ghost, destroying the daimyo‘s house within three years. A century or so after his death, a shrine was erected to his memory which attracted pilgrims throughout the realm and made Sakura Sogoro “the patron saint of protest” (Anne Walthall, whom we shall hear more from later.) The tale has earned popular staging in Japanese culture from the kabuki stage to television.


The great 19th century kabuki actor Ichikawa Kodanji as the avenging specter of “Asakura Togo”, the Kabuki character based on Sakura Sogoro. Image from this gorgeous collection.

As one might infer from the sketchy account here, the story’s historicity is shaky despite its popularity down the centuries in Japan. According to an academic paper by Walthall,*

The archetype of the peasant martyr, a man who deliberately sacrificed himself on behalf of his community.”

More has been written about Sakura Sogoro than about any other peasant hero, but the evidence of his existence is extremely circumstantial. Written accounts of him remain fragmentary until the 1770s …

The first mention of the Sogoro legend appears in Sakura fudoki (a record of provincial lore on Sakura), compiled by a Sakura domain bureaucrat, Isobe Shogen. He recounts how an old man had told him that Sogoro’s vengeful spirit caused the downfall of a seventeenth-century lord. This emphasis on revenge after death is common to many Japanese folktales. Its constant recurrence as a theme in Japanese history reflects a widely held belief in the power of strong emotions to wreak havoc after a person has died. At this point Sogoro was hardly a martyr for the peasants — they remembered not his own deeds, if any, but what had happened to the lord.

By the middle of the eighteenth century, the story gains more detail. After the death of the just lord, Hotta Masamori, his retainers take control of domanial administration, treat the peasants unjustly, and increase the land tax. To save the people, Sogoro makes a direct appeal to the shogun … becom[ing] an exemplar of righteous action, a man who placed community welfare above individual self-interest …

In narratives from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the plot becomes still more elaborate. Sogoro is described as a man of scholarship, deeply religious, respectful of his superiors, mindful of his subordinates, esteemed by his neighbors. “He was intelligent, tactful, and did not look like he was peasant born. Everyone said he must be the descendant of a warrior” … As the savior of his village, he represented the peasants’ aspirations; as an angry spirit, he reflected their resentment of those in authority.

The most modern version of the legend omits all reference to revenge by angry spirits. Now the story depicts the courage of Sogoro and his supporters among the peasants and his heartrending renunciation of his family when he resolves to sacrifice himself for the community. He still puts his appeal directly in the hands of the shogun, even though modern historians have long argued that a meeting with the shogun was impossible for a peasant. In contrast to the “good king,” (the shogun Ietsuna) the villain, Hotta Masanobu, executes not merely Sogoro, but his four children. Even the cruelty of this command has become further elaborated. To evade the bakufu prohibition on the execution of women, officials pretend that Sogoro’s three daughters are actually sons and cut off their heads. In short, today people know only a lachrymose tale of tyranny and heroism.

English speakers can grab a couple renderings of this story in the public domain:

* Walthall, “Narratives of Peasant Uprisings in Japan,” The Journal of Asian Studies, May 1983.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Children,Crucifixion,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Japan,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Myths,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Uncertain Dates,Women

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1653: Six beheaded and one hanged for the Swiss Peasant War

5 comments July 24th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1653, seven ringleaders of Switzerland’s greatest peasant revolt were executed in Basel.


Six were decapitated (like the foreground) and one hanged (find the triangular gallows in the background).

Not widely known now outside of Switzerland, the peasant war of 1653 shook the Swiss city-states so profoundly that it was described in its own time as a revolution.

Like most peasant rebellions, it was triggered by the economy; a recovery of peacable harvests after the Thirty Years’ War ended in 1648 had staggered Swiss peasants who had grown accustomed to selling their produce abroad at a premium. When they were pressed even harder by taxes and currency devaluations inflicted by city-states with their own budget problems, they found their breaking-point.

In February 1653, peasants of the Entlebuch Valley gathered in an illegal assembly and decided to stop tax payments to Lucern until they got some concessions.

To the chagrin of urban grandees, Entlebuch’s refusal soon began garnering sympathetic imitations among its neighbors and peasant resistance spread across the whole north, spanning the put-upon rural dominions of four cities: Lucern, Bern, Basel, and Solothurn.


(cc) image by Lupo.

Tense negotiations continued into April, but Lucern’s concessions were undone by its refusal to offer a blanket amnesty that would also cover the rebellion’s leaders. That May, with the cities still powerless to control affairs, the disaffected peasants throughout the region united in the League of Huttwil — named for the little town where they met. In this cross-confessional compact, Catholic and Protestant peasants made common purpose and declared themselves a sovereignty apart from the cantons. Then, the army they had raised from their number marched on both Lucern and Bern simultaneously, the threatened sieges respectively led by Christian Schybi and Niklaus Leuenberger. Bern was so unprepared for this turn of events that it had to capitulate to the peasantry’s demands, which arrangement led Lucern also to conclude a truce.

In so doing the cities had to capitulate to the peasantry’s economic demands. Had this state of affairs somehow stood, it would have forced a rewrite in the relationship between city and country throughout the Swiss confederation.

And for just that reason, the affected cities as well as nearby Zurich were raising armies to undo the nascent revolution. Within days, troops from Zurich had dealt the peasant force a crushing defeat at the Battle of Wohlenschwil, then united with a Bernese column to conclusively shatter the rebellion. Before June was out, all of Entlebuch Valley stood pacified and the rebellion’s leaders lay in dungeons. To the peasantry’s economic burdens was added a bitter levy to fund the war that had smashed them.

Several dozen peasants were executed in the ensuing weeks, most aggressively by the canton of Bern — whence derives today’s illustration.

Notwithstandng such vengeance, The Swiss were wise enough to wield the carrot along with the stick. Even as the cities re-established their political control of the countryside, they took care in the coming years to use a lighter touch in governing the peasantry for fear of stoking new disturbances; arguably, the memory and the threat of the peasant war might have checked the potential development of absolutism in Switzerland.

How’s your German? Two academic books on the Swiss Peasant War

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Switzerland,Treason

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1653: Jasper Hanebuth, robber and murderer

Add comment February 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1653, the German bandit Jasper Hanebuth was broken on the wheel in Hanover.

An illiterate farmer’s son from Groß-Buchholz, Hanebuth came of age during the calamitous Thirty Years’ War and thereby made his bread for a time as one of the numberless strong arms enlisted to let out one another’s blood.

Hanebuth is the titular villain in the German historical fiction novel The Murderer’s Concubine.

In a time of crisscrossing armies with conflicting loyalties and uncertain pay, it was a fine line between soldiers and thieves — sometimes just the hour of the day. What matter to a rural family or a vulnerable traveler if the gang of armed men who dispossessed him did so under the banner of God or that of opportunism? And given means and opportunity, what matter to the armed gang itself? Victims in such a chaotic environment, either actual or potential, were liable in their own turn to resort to brigandage as the only viable option, paying the devastation forward.

“It defies the pen to recount all the miseries and horrors” from those years of pillage and rapine, wrote August Jugler in his history of Hanover.

True to the template, Hanebuth parlayed wartime soldiery into an alarmingly bold career of opportunistic robbery in the still-extant Eilenriede. A purported “Hanebuth’s Block” in the vicinity of the present-day zoo there long preserved the association; there’s still a street in the forest known as Hanebuthwinkel.

He was reputed an especially vicious outlaw, who would raid singly as well as jointly with other farmers and decommissioned warriors, and would as readily for sport or pleasure shoot a convenient target dead before bothering to approach and find out if the business end of the felony was even worth the murder. He ultimately confessed to 19 homicides.

But it was still the pecuniary motive that drove things. Hanebuth approached crime-lord status with secret smuggling tunnels allegedly set up to move his ill-gotten gains and regular traffic with Hanover merchants. Hanebuth also set up as a horse-trader, exploiting his predilection for violence to obtain stock by force. One trader who refused a shakedown simply had his horses outright stolen the next night, and this man at last reported Hanebuth, resulting in his arrest, torture, and execution on the wheel.

He remains one of Hanover’s most iconic historical criminals.


Jacques Collot’s 1633 cycle “The Miseries of War” might have foretold Hanebuth’s fate: here, a soldier of the Thirty Years’ War who has turned to robbery is punished, as Hanebuth would be, on the wheel. The caption explains:

The ever-watching eye of the divine Astrée [Justice]
Banishes entirely the mourning from the country
When holding the sword and scales in her hands
She judges and punishes the inhuman thief
Who awaits passersby, hurts them, and plays with them
[And] then becomes himself the plaything of a wheel.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Soldiers,Theft,Torture

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