1917: Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic, of the Black Hand

3 comments June 26th, 2017 Headsman

A century ago today* Dragutin Dimitrijevic — better known by his code name “Apis” — was shot on the outskirts of Salonika (Thessaloniki) along with two lieutenants in his legendary Serbian terrorist organization, the Black Hand.

Not to be confused with mafia extortionists of the same name, the Black Hand was the cooler brand name of Ujedinjenje Ili Smrt — “Union or Death” in the Serbo-Croatian tongue, referring to the network’s objective of aggrandizing the small Kingdom of Serbia with their ethnic brethren who, circa the fin de siècle, still answered to the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This national aspiration would midwife the First World War.

Though it wasn’t formed as an institution until 1911** — it had its own constitution and everything — some of the Black Hand principals had entered the chessboard dramatically by conspiring in the 1903 assassination of the unpopular King Alexander Obrenovic and his consort Queen Draga. This operation is remembered as the May Coup and numbered among its leaders our very man, Apis. (English Wikipedia link| Serbian) Apis caught three bullets in the chest during the murderous palace invasion, but the hand wasn’t the only thing tough about him.

In victory, these conspirators grew into a powerful faction of a more bellicose state, the most militant exponents of Pan-Serbism — a spirit perforce directed against the Austrian polity, which called South Slavs subjects from Trieste to Montenegro. Belgrade, then as now the capital of Serbia, was at this point a border city, with the bulk of the future Yugoslavia lying to its north and west, in Austria-Hungary.

“We do not say that this war is declared yet, but we believe that it is inevitable. If Serbia wants to live in honour, she can do so only by this war,” Apis predicted to a newsman in 1912. “This war must bring about the eternal freedom of Serbia, of the South Slavs, of the Balkan peoples. Our whole race must stand together to halt the onslaught of these aliens from the north.”

I, (name), by entering into the society, do hereby swear by the Sun which shineth upon me, by the Earth which feedeth me, by God, by the blood of my forefathers, by my honour and by my life, that from this moment onward and until my death, I shall faithfully serve the task of this organisation and that I shall at all times be prepared to bear for it any sacrifice. I further swear by God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall unconditionally carry into effect all its orders and commands. I further swear by my God, by my honour and by my life, that I shall keep within myself all the secrets of this organisation and carry them with me into my grave. May God and my brothers in this organisation be my judges if at any time I should wittingly fail or break this oath.

-Black Hand induction oath

On the pregnant date of June 28, 1914, the Black Hand grasped at its historical destiny to redraw that noxious border when a cell of Bosnian Serbs whom Apis — a mere captain at the time of the 1903 coup, he by now commanded Serbian military intelligence — had dispatched for the purpose assassinated the Austrian heir presumptive Archduke Franz Ferdinand during his visit to the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

Their objective was the same as it had ever been, to avenge themselves upon their occupier. Moreover, Serbia had allied herself with Russia, and Vienna’s inevitable declaration of war over the provocation could be expected to draw Russia into a Great Power war, perhaps with the effect of shaking loose Austria’s Balkan provinces.

It did that, and it drew in the whole of Europe besides.

Apis’s assassins shattered the Habsburg empire and made possible a postwar Yugoslavian kingdom. That the Black Hand itself was one of the Great War’s casualties in the process was the littlest of ironies.

Its aggression had long placed it in a delicate relationship with the state which could never really be expected to acclimate to a permanent network of enragees looking to author wars and political murders.

By 1917 the Prime Minister Nikola Pasic saw an opening to move against Apis. Perhaps he feared resumed Black Hand subversion if Serbia negotiated a peace with Austria, or wanted to get rid of the guy who could tell exactly how much he, Pasic, knew about the Archduke’s assassination before it happened.

It was an effective ploy, no matter the reason. Alleging a bogus Black Hand plot to kill Serbia’s prince regent, a Serbian military investigation rolled up Dimitrijevic along with one of his original May Coup cronies, Ljobomir Vulovic and the alleged would-be assassin Rado Malobabic, a man who really had been involved in planning the Archduke Franz Ferdinand hit. Dimitrijevic was known to remark privately that whatever the charge sheet said, he was really being executed for that fateful day in Sarajevo.

The three condemned men stepped down into the ditches that had been dug for the purpose, and placed themselves in front of the stakes. Dimitrijevic on the right, Vulovic in the middle, and Malobabic on the left. After being blindfolded, Dimitrijevic and Vulovic cried: “Long live Greater Serbia!”

Malobabic succumbed after the first five shots, while the two others suffered longer, twenty shots having to be fired at each of them. No one was hit in the head. The execution was over at 4.47 in the morning.

-Witness’s account of the execution

* Different sources proposing numerous different dates in June and even July can be searched up on these here interwebs. We’re basing June 26 on primary reportage in the English-language press (e.g., the London Times of June 28, 1917, under a June 26 dateline: “The Serbian Prince Regent having confirmed the death sentences passed on Colonel Dragutin Dimitriovitch, Major Liubomir Vulovitch, and the volunteer Malobabitch for complicity in a plot to upset the existing regime, these were executed this morning in the outskirts of Salonika”). The sentences were confirmed on June 24, and both that date and its local Julian equivalent June 11 are among the notional death dates running around in the wild.

** The Black Hand from 1911 was the successor to Narodna Odbrana (“National Defense”) which formed in 1908 in response to Austria-Hungary’s annexation of Bosnia.

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1917: Otilio Montaño, Zapatista

Add comment May 18th, 2017 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, Otilio Montaño Sánchez was shot as a traitor to the Mexican Revolution.

Montaño was a rural schoolteacher who came to mentor Emiliano Zapata via Zapata’s cousin.

Montaño had the distinct of helping Zapata draw up his movement’s “sacred scripture,” the egalitarian Plan of Ayala, and rose with his protege to become Secretary of Public Instructions in the Zapatista governing junta.

This association was destined to be displaced by a different (ex-)revolutionary, Venustiano Carranza, who would break with Zapata and emerge from the Revolution as Mexico’s president. Montaño suffered the fate Carranza’s former allies would have wished to impose upon him: being accused of supporting a pro-Carranza revolt, a revolutionary tribunal had him shot (dishonorably, shot in the back) wearing a defamatory sign reading “So die all traitors to the fatherland.”

A small town in Morelos is named for Montaño.

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1917: Lation Scott lynched

2 comments December 2nd, 2014 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1917, 24-year-old black farmhand Lation (or Ligon) Scott died a horrible death in Dyersburg, Tennessee.

For the two years prior to his extrajudicial “execution” by a lynch mob, Scott had worked as a farmhand for a white family, doing the farm chores while the husband worked at his job in Dyersburg.

He got on well with the family and was fond of the two children. He seemed like an ordinary enough man and a good worker, according to the NAACP journal The Crisis:

Accounts as to his intelligence vary widely. One report asserts that he was almost half-witted. Others attribute to him the intelligence of the average country Negro… He had the reputation of being a splendid hand at doing general housework, or “spring-cleaning,” and…had done this sort of work for a prominent woman of Dyersburg. She states that she was alone in the house with him for two days.

No trouble resulted.

In addition to farming and the doing of odd jobs, he was a preacher. On November 22, 1917, however, he allegedly raped the farmer’s wife while her husband was at work. He threatened to kill her if she reported what he had done. He then fled, leaving his victim bound and gagged inside the farmhouse.

The woman was able to free herself and identify her attacker, and the community took swift action, searching extensively for Scott and offering a $200 reward for his apprehension. Scott was able to elude capture for ten days, though, making his way fifty miles to Madison County. There, a railroad worker recognized him and he was arrested.

The sheriff’s deputy for Dyer County, along with some other men (including, presciently, an undertaker), picked up the accused man and started off back to Dyersburg by car in the wee hours of the morning. They didn’t bother taking an indirect route for the purpose of their journey.

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people gathered along the road and waited for their quarry.

And when he appeared, they forced the car off the road and made the officers turn over their prisoner.

These people were not typical of the average lynch mob: rather than stringing him up on the spot, they drew up a list of twelve “jurors” and, at noon, after church let out, drove Scott to the county courthouse for a “trial.”

Scott was ordered to stand up and asked, “Are you guilty or not guilty?”

Scott admitted he was guilty, and the “jury” voted for conviction.

Although one “prominent citizen” asked the people not to be barbaric, because it was Sunday and because “the reputation of the county was at stake,” both the rape victim and her husband wanted Scott to be burned alive rather than merely hanged.

The Crisis‘s description of what happened is not for the faint-hearted.

The Negro was seated on the ground and a buggy-axle driven into the ground between his legs. His feet were chained together, with logging chains, and he was tied with wire. A fire was built. Pokers and flat-irons were procured and heated in the fire… Reports of the torturing, which have been generally accepted and have not been contradicted, are that the Negro’s clothes and skin were ripped from his body simultaneously with a knife. His self-appointed executioners burned his eye-balls with red-hot irons. When he opened his mouth to cry for mercy a red-hot poker was rammed down his gullet. In the same subtle way he was robbed of his sexual organs. Red-hot irons were placed on his feet, back and body, until a hideous stench of burning flesh filled the Sabbath air of Dyersburg, Tenn.

Thousands of people witnessed this scene. They had to be pushed back from the stake to which the Negro was chained. Roof-tops, second-story windows, and porch-tops were filled with spectators. Children were lifted to shoulders, that they might behold the agony of the victim.

It took three and a half hours for the man to die.

Margaret Vandiver wrote in Lethal Punishment: Lynchings and Legal Executions in the South, “The lynching of Lation Scott was the most ghastly of all those I researched.”

This spectacle of horror took place in broad daylight, and no one in the mob wore masks.

Nevertheless, no one was ever prosecuted.

According to The Crisis,

Public opinion in Dyersburg and Dyer County seems to be divided into two groups. One group considers that the Negro got what he deserved. The other group feels that he should have had a “decent lynching.”

A “decent lynching” was defined as “a quick, quiet hanging, with no display or torturing.”

One local citizen remarked that he thought the people who tortured and killed Lation Scott were no better than the rapist himself. Another simply commented, “It was the biggest thing since the Ringling Brothers’ Circus came to town.”

Lation Scott’s was the last lynching in Dyer County history.


Wire report in the Salt Lake Telegram, Dec. 3, 1917.

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1917: “John Nelson”, mystery man

3 comments July 10th, 2013 Headsman


(Salt Lake (Utah) Telegram, Dec. 31, 1916)

On this date in 1917, someone was electrocuted in Rockview, Pennsylvania.

“John Nelson”, the cipher alias by which authorities were eventually content to call him, was 5′ 8″ tall and 165 pounds, and looked like an African-American. (“Nelson” himself said that neither white men nor black were of his race.) Papers put this about quizzically because he was also utterly steadfast in refusing to identify himself or his background.

He eventually allowed that he came from Canton, Ohio (but who knows if that’s true). “He reads Shakespeare and seeks high grade newspapers and magazines,” ran news-of-the-weird wire copy all around the country. He boasts “long hair which bears the appearance of having been done up in kids to give a ‘Sis Hopkins’* effect” as well as “long gray whiskers, sideburns and a heavy mustache.” He looked maybe 60 years old.

Anyone?

Aw, heck.


The Scranton Times sent 5,000 of these postcards around the country hoping to scare up information about their mysterious murderer.

Tips poured in from all over — but nothing definitive. An upstate New York sheriff reported discharging a guy named John Nelson from jail a couple of years before. A woman in Butte, Montana recognized the picture and thought it might be her vanished father. The prisoner also resembled a missionary from Ohio and a bank president from Richmond, Va., also both missing; a Scranton woman thought he maybe used to be her gardener. (All but the last of these indefinite tips via Cheryl Kashuba’s two-part series on this case in the March 17 and March 24, 2013, issues of the Scranton Times-Tribune.)

Although nobody could figure out who he was, everyone was pretty sure what he’d done.

On the evening of Oct. 30, 1915, he’d trudged into Mill City, a Wyoming County township outside of Scranton, and made an unexplained sudden attack on three men lolling about a barbershop porch.

According to those three men’s story — and they’re all we have to work with since Nelson kept mum on this, too — a little white boy running down the darkened street bumped into the mystery pedestrian. At that, “Nelson” suddenly produced a knife and charged at the trio of nearby men, bellowing “White people in a tank town like this can’t run over me!”

J.M. Sickler, a prosperous local farmer, bravely intercepted the attacker before he reached Judge Robert Westlake, and suffered mortal stab wounds for his trouble. The attacker fled, but other locals roused by the commotion overpowered him as he escaped; Sickler lived long enough to give a deathbed positive identification.

Of course, it wasn’t really “positive” — that’s the whole point. And “John Nelson”, whoever he might have been, kept his nose in his Shakespeare and his lips enigmatically sealed on the crime and its causes; on his background and biography; on everything whatsoever. “I just wouldn’t care to talk about that,” he would reply when questioned, or similar versions of that polite deflection.

He kept his queer peace all the way to the electric chair.

* Maybe Mr. “Nelson” was just taking Sis Hopkins’ good advice: “There ain’t no sense in doin’ nothin’ for nobody what won’t do nothin’ for you.” As Nelson blithely put it (and who could contradict him?) any name at all would do for his circumstances.

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1917: Emil Rebreanu, Forest of the Hanged inspiration

Add comment May 14th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Romanian Lieutenant Emil Rebreanu was hanged for attempted desertion by the Austro-Hungarian army.

Here’s Rebreanu’s entry at the Enciclopedia Romaniei, which says in brief that he was one of 14 (!) brothers born in the part of present-day Romania that was then attached to the Kingdom of Hungary.

Upon the outbreak of World War I, Rebreanu was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian forces and fought on several fronts. But his removal to the lines to fight against the independent Romanian state was a front too far: he attempted to cross the lines to the Romanians on the night of May 10-11, but was captured, court-martialed, and sentenced to hang.

However, tragedy for the sizable Rebreanu family was a boon to world literature.

One of Emil’s many brothers was author Liviu Rebreanu, one of the greats of Romanian letters.

The latter’s 1922 novel Forest of the Hanged clearly draws upon his brother’s fate: in Forest, a Romanian officer uneasily serving in the Habsburg army first condemns a Czech deserter to death as part of a tribunal, then attempts himself to desert to Romania.

For his trouble, the character suffers the exact same fate as Emil Rebreanu.

A 1965 Romanian film, also called Forest of the Hanged, adapts this novel for the silver screen.

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1917: Sub-Lt. Edwin Dyett, shot at dawn

6 comments January 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Edwin Dyett was shot for desertion and cowardice.

After the disastrously ineffective Somme offensive in late 1916, British Field Marshal Douglas Haig decided to pick up the men’s spirits. And what better way to motivate than by shooting more officers?

If one proceeds from the premise of the British brass that the main problem with its military ineffectiveness was the men in the field, there was something in the cruelly “progressive” about the order: luckless enlisted fellows from the lower classes were smoking last cigarettes by the bushel, but gentry-stock officers were more liable to get the kid-gloves treatment .

Haig was taking the kid gloves off.

“A soldier’s tale cut in stone to melt all hearts,” said Winston Churchill of this pathbreaking novel thought to be based on Edwin Dyett. The first novel about executed World War I deserters, it is thought to have influenced later portrayals of such executions and the sub-heroic literary context for the Great War.

Within two months of that order, our man Dyett was up against the stake at St. Firmin, France — perhaps the most famous shooting among the officer corps.

Perhaps presuming upon the traditional leniency extended to the better classes, Dyett had little inkling of his fate during the weeks after his arrest. He’d been collared during the aforementioned Somme campaign for “deserting” for two days when he’d taken umbrage at being directed to the front by an inferior officer and instead returned to headquarters for orders.

As late as Christmas Eve, he was still keeping his parents in the dark, certain that the misunderstanding was not enough to even “cause a sitting.”

That sitting, however, occurred forthwith on Boxing Day, with only a half-hour for the defense to prepare. That defense was less than robust, and the court clearly disinclined to a sympathetic reading of the circumstances.

Dyett had only just turned 21, but clemency appeals around youth and the confusion of the situation would cut no ice. “”If a private behaved as he did,” wrote the officer charged to review it, “it is highly likely he would be shot.”

Lt. Dyett had only a single evening from hearing the bad news to prepare himself for what must have seemed to him a shocking turn of events. This time, he posted a different sort of missive to the home front.

Dearest Mother Mine, I hope by now you will have had the news. Dearest, I am leaving you now because He has willed it. My sorrow tonight is for the trouble I have caused you and dad. Please excuse any mistakes, but if it were not for the kind support of the Rev. W.C. — who is with me tonight, I should not be able to write myself. I should like you to write to him, as he has been my friend. I am leaving all my effects to you, dearest; will you give a little — half the sum you have of mine? Give dear Dad my love and wish him luck. I feel for you so much and I am sorry for bringing dishonour upon you all. Give — my love. She will, I expect, understand – and give her back the presents, photos, cards, etc., she has sent me, poor girl. So now dearest Mother, I must close. May God bless and protect you all now and for evermore. Amen.

Dad didn’t take it with the stiff upper lip; after a futile campaign to clear the boy, he renounced his citizenship and emigrated to America.

The Shot At Dawn site dedicated to executed first World War soldiers maintains a detailed (and very pro-Dyett) page about our day’s principal. There’s also a recent nonfiction book, Death for Desertion, which pleads Dyett’s case.

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1917: Gasim, by Lawrence of Arabia

2 comments July 5th, 2010 Headsman

“With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.”

-Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia

This date in 1917 was the eve of the Battle of Aqaba, wherein a force of Arabs with famous British officer T.E. Lawrence emerged from the desert to surprise and capture the Ottoman Red Sea port today located in Jordan.*

And that makes this, in the cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, the date on which the titular character kept the peace within his fragile coalition by personally executing a malefactor to prevent a tribal blood feud.

The victim, Gasim, is a real figure described in the real T.E. Lawrence’s memoirs

a gap-toothed, grumbling fellow, skrimshank in all our marches, bad-tempered, suspicious, brutal, a man whose engagement I regretted, and of whom I had promised to rid myself as soon as we reached a discharging-place.

Gasim is most famous as the beneficiary of the movie scene in which Lawrence boldly turns back into the desert to rescue this worthless retainer when Gasim’s camel is found riderless in the caravan. This, too, is based on an actual incident in Lawrence’s memoir, albeit heavily dramatized on celluloid.

In the film, Lawrence’s godlike power to give Gasim life is soon mirrored by the godlike power to deprive it.

Effectively exploiting dramatic license, Lawrence of Arabia portrays the Englishman surveying the scene of the coming triumph when a disturbance breaks out in his camp. Hastening thither, he discovers clan lining up against clan over the destructive right of blood vengeance because of a murder in the camp — a murder committed by the man he has saved.

To forestall a “tribal bloodbath” on the very eve of victory, Lawrence himself volunteers to execute the culprit. Having once risked everything to save Gasim, Lawrence sacrifices him ruthlessly when the occasion demands.** This act underscores the chameleon-like other-ness of the character, one of the film’s principal leitmotifs: “I have no tribe, and no one is offended!”

Though the real Lawrence did no such thing to the real Gasim, this astonishing scene is also related in the memoirs — just at an earlier point, and with a different, less dramatically integral character.

My followers had been quarrelling all day; and while I was lying near the rocks a shot was fired. I paid no attention; for there were hares and birds in the valley; but a little later Suleiman roused me and made me follow him across the valley to an opposite bay in the rocks, where one of the Ageyl, a Boreida man, was lying stone dead with a bullet through his temples. The shot must have been fired from close by; because the skin was burnt about one wound. The remaining Ageyl were running frantically about; and when I asked what it was Ali, their head man, said that Hamed the Moor had done the murder. I suspected Suleiman, because of the feud between the Atban and Ageyl which had burned up in Yenbo and Wejh; but Ali assured me that Suleiman had been with him three hundred yards further up the valley gathering sticks when the shot was fired. I sent all out to search for Hamed, and crawled back to the baggage, feeling that it need not have happened this day of all days when I was in pain.

As I lay there I heard a rustle, and opened my eyes slowly upon Hamed’s back as he stooped over his saddle-bags, which lay just beyond my rock. I covered him with a pistol and then spoke. He had put down his rifle to lift the gear; and was at my mercy till the others came. We held a court at once; and after a while Hamed confessed that, he and Salem having had words, he had seen red and shot him suddenly. Our inquiry ended. The Ageyl, as relatives of the dead man, demanded blood for blood. The others supported them; and I tried vainly to talk the gentle Ali round. My head was aching with fever and I could not think; but hardly even in health, with all eloquence, could I have begged Hamed off; for Salem had been a friendly fellow and his sudden murder a wanton crime.

Then rose up the horror which would make civilized man shun justice like a plague if he had not the needy to serve him as hangmen for wages. There were other Moroccans in our army; and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, and laid the burden of his killing on myself. Perhaps they would count me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my followers; for I was a stranger and kinless.

I made him enter a narrow gully of the spur, a dank twilight place overgrown with weeds. Its sandy bed had been pitted by trickles of water down the cliffs in the late rain. At the end it shrank to a crack a few inches wide. The walls were vertical. I stood in the entrance and gave him a few moments’ delay which he spent crying on the ground. Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest. He fell down on the weeds shrieking, with the blood coming out in spurts over his clothes, and jerked about till he rolled nearly to where I was. I fired again, but was shaking so that I only broke his wrist. He went on calling out, less loudly, now lying on his back with his feet towards me, and I leant forward and shot him for the last time in the thick of his neck under the jaw. His body shivered a little, and I called the Ageyl, who buried him in the gully where he was. Afterwards the wakeful night dragged over me, till, hours before dawn, I had the men up and made them load, in my longing to be set free of Wadi Kitan. They had to lift me into the saddle.

Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence almost palpably manifests the conflicting aspects of his character as he shoots Gasim to death — and he confirms the transformative effect of his first homicide in subsequent dialogue with Gen. Edmund Allenby.

Lawrence: I killed two people. One was … yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was … well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
Allenby: That’s to be expected.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: Well, then let it be a lesson.
Lawrence: No … something else.
Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

* Actually, Aqaba is Jordan’s only port. This battle was not so epic as the film depicts.

** In a bit of complex foreshadowing, the cinematic Gasim has told Lawrence at the outset of the expedition that “Allah favors the compassionate.”

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1917: Jesse Robart Short, Etaples mutineer

Add comment October 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1917, Jesse Robart Short was shot in Etaples, France, for mutiny.


Jesse Robart Short’s sentence, as confirmed by General Haig, from the UK National Archives. (Transcribed more legibly.)

The fraught relationship between the enlisted and the officers had boiled over in the Etaples Mutiny just a few weeks before, which saw military police fire into a crowd of troops protesting the heavy-handed arrest of a fellow for slipping into the town of Etaples for a little (unauthorized, but widely practiced) R&R.

The shooting left a man dead and the camp in an uproar for several days, with some enraged rank-and-file men trying to break into army facilities hunting for MPs.

The excellent, but now defunct, site Shot At Dawn had a thorough recounting of the Etaples mutiny, still archived at the Wayback Machine.

Short, whose disciplinary record was otherwise clean, was picked out seemingly more or less arbitrarily to be the demonstration execution for this affair. He was doomed for an (unsuccessful) incident of incitement to mutiny, described by the officer thus:

“The picket was armed as regards 150 & the remainder were unarmed. At about 9.10 pm a lot of men, about 70 or 80 with notice boards torn away from the camps and waving flags which were handkerchiefs of all colours including red attached to sticks approached me. These men pushed through, the picket practically standing on one side … officers who stood out were also pushed aside. The picquet was absolutely unreliable at that moment so I called the officers together & made them fall their men in by Regts. I then addressed the picket & whilst doing so … [Short] came back from the crowd of men who had just broken through & told the men they were not to listen to men. ‘What you want to do to the Bugger is to put a stone round his neck & throw him into the river’… he told the men to fall out & join the mob who had just broken through.”

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1917: Thirteen black soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry Regiment

12 comments December 11th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1917, thirteen black soldiers were secretly hanged at dawn at a military camp outside San Antonio for their parts in a Houston race riot four months earlier.

During the nadir of American race relations and just months after America’s entry into World War I, the soldiers of this historic all-black unit had been dispatched to build military facilities in Harris County, where they met animosity from whites beyond the everyday insults of Jim Crow law. Here, the service of “arrogant, strutting representatives of black soldiery” was hated and feared.

When white police arrested a black infantryman who tried to prevent their detaining a drunk black woman, then beat up and shot at a black corporal sent to inquire after him, hostility boiled over. Over one hundred soldiers marched through the city — confronting a mob of white citizens and police who had likewise armed themselves. Fifteen whites and four blacks were killed in the ensuing confrontation.

This documentary segment is from Mutiny on the Bayou:

The next day’s Houston Chronicle knew just what to do about it.

Their lenient treatment has led negro soldiers to believe that the government is in sympathy with their arrogance and impudence toward white people …

A COURT MARTIAL, A HOLLOW SQUARE AND A FIRING SQUAD WILL SETTLE THE MATTER FOR ONCE AND FOR ALL.

No white Houstonian was ever prosecuted for the day’s events, but the largest court-martial in U.S. military history tried 63 black soldiers and condemned 13 to die:

Sgt. William C. Nesbitt
Corp. Larsen J. Brown
Corp. James Wheatley
Corp. Jesse Moore
Corp. Charles W. Baltimore*
Pvt. William Brackenridge
Pvt. Thomas C. Hawkins
Pvt. Carlos Snodgrass
Pvt. Ira B. Davis
Pvt. James Divine
Pvt. Frank Johnson
Pvt. Rosley W. Young
Pvt. Pat MacWharter

The sentence was carried out without appeal, the time and place only announced after the men had already hanged but evidently witnessed by the New York Times reporter who wrote that “the negroes, dressed in their regular uniforms, displayed neither bravado nor fear. They rode to the execution singing a hymn, but the singing was as that of soldiers on the march.”

Two more mass courts-martial would follow, resulting in six more hangings the following year.

For years afterward, the incident clouded and complicated race relations, especially in the War Department.

Some blacks openly applauded the mutiny as a justified resistance against racist provocation. This inflammatory opinion piece, quoted in Mark Ellis’ Race, War and Surveillance, landed the editor who agreed to run it in federal prison:

We would rather see you shot by the highest tribunal of the United States Army because you dared to protect a Negro woman from the insult of a southern brute in the form of a policeman, than to have you forced to go to Europe to fight for a liberty you cannot enjoy. Negro women regret that you mutinied, and we are sorry that you spilt innocent blood, but we are not sorry that five southern policemen’s bones now bleech [sic] in the graves of Houston, Tex.

Meanwhile, the Army noted “the tendency of the Negro soldier, with fire arms in his possession … to become arrogant, overbearing, abusive and a menace to the community in which he happens to be stationed.” It held down its black enlistment throughout the interwar period.

Sympathizers with the policy would continue — until the raw manpower requirements of World War II trumped the discussion — to cite the Houston riots both as evidence of the dangers of arming blacks, and the disloyalty of a populace willing to register open disgust with lynch law during wartime.

* Baltimore was the soldier who had come after the missing men; his altercation with a white policeman who answered, “I don’t report to any negro” and pistol-whipped him — and, it was incorrectly rumored among the 24th Infantry that night, killed him — triggered the riot.

Baltimore’s role is developed in a fascinating study of primary documentation on the case in Edgar A. Schuler’s “The Houston Race Riot, 1917″ published in The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 29, No. 3 (July, 1944). Schuler also treats the interesting tensions between the Houston black community and the black regiment, and the emergence of a white narrative of uppity, out-of-control Negroes rather than ones responding (however wrongly) to specific provocations … which conveniently turned Jim Crow law from the problem into the solution.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rioting,Soldiers,Texas,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions

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1917: Mata Hari, femme fatale

6 comments October 15th, 2008 Headsman

At 5 a.m. this date in 1917, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle — better known as Mata Hari — was awoken at Saint-Lazare Prison to news that it was her last day on earth.

She died in a muddy drill field outside Paris, facing a firing squad as she had lived: self-possessed, mysterious, her eyes (she refused a blindfold) open.

For the oldest profession, it may be there is nothing truly original, nothing new under the sun. But Mata Hari — thanks in no small part to her genuinely fatale end — redefined it for the dawning age of mass visual media and tapped the power of sexual allure for a commercial century.

She was already pushing 30 when she got into the exotic dance game, with a failed May-December marriage behind her from what a wag might call her first sexual bargain, to get out from under the thumb of her family and see the world. In Paris in the belle epoque, there were assuredly dancers younger, prettier. Margaretha, who here debuted the show name by which history would know here, surpassed them with showmanship.

She exploited her exotic olive-toned looks — there were rumors of Javanese or Jewish blood even in her childhood — and claimed to be an Indian princess; her talent for repackaging oriental exoticism with just the right amount of otherness combined with her willingness to push boundaries of eroticism made her an instant sensation. Naturally gregarious and unprudish, she segued into the courtesan biz on the side with dashing officers and wealthy industrialists.

Not bad for a thirty-something mother of two.

She comes at the start of our own era: sensual postcards and posed photos of Mata Hari were at once her pitch and her product; celluloid was just coming online, and 14 years after her death, she’d be portrayed by silver screen femme fatale Greta Garbo:

That’s her with the last object of her affections, a Russian aviator young enough to be her son, and a reminder that the birth of Greta Garbo’s era was also the death of Mata Hari’s own.

She was aging, for one thing. For another, of course, war shattered Europe. Famous, decadent, polyglot … those things that had been her passport suddenly became her liabilities. Globetrotting travel? Payoffs from a multinational cast of officers for her companionship?

There’s no take here on whether she was really, as convicted, a German spy of any variety at all — she seems to have been approached, to have tried her hand clumsily or to have been set up by either French or German intelligence, or simply to have behaved indiscreetly. Once she was caught up against events, her maneating reputation did her no favors.

Spying, she was terrible at. Commanding men’s attention? As a British correspondent reported, Margaretha Zelle owned her role to the very last.

The first intimation she received that her plea had been denied was when she was led at daybreak from her cell in the Saint-Lazare prison to a waiting automobile and then rushed to the barracks where the firing squad awaited her.

Never once had the iron will of the beautiful woman failed her. Father Arbaux, accompanied by two sisters of charity, Captain Bouchardon, and Maitre Clunet, her lawyer, entered her cell, where she was still sleeping – a calm, untroubled sleep, it was remarked by the turnkeys and trusties.

The sisters gently shook her. She arose and was told that her hour had come.

‘May I write two letters?’ was all she asked.

Consent was given immediately by Captain Bouchardon, and pen, ink, paper, and envelopes were given to her.

She seated herself at the edge of the bed and wrote the letters with feverish haste. She handed them over to the custody of her lawyer.

Then she drew on her stockings, black, silken, filmy things, grotesque in the circumstances. She placed her high-heeled slippers on her feet and tied the silken ribbons over her insteps.

She arose and took the long black velvet cloak, edged around the bottom with fur and with a huge square fur collar hanging down the back, from a hook over the head of her bed. She placed this cloak over the heavy silk kimono which she had been wearing over her nightdress.

Her wealth of black hair was still coiled about her head in braids. She put on a large, flapping black felt hat with a black silk ribbon and bow. Slowly and indifferently, it seemed, she pulled on a pair of black kid gloves. Then she said calmly:

‘I am ready.’

The party slowly filed out of her cell to the waiting automobile.

The car sped through the heart of the sleeping city. It was scarcely half-past five in the morning and the sun was not yet fully up.

Clear across Paris the car whirled to the Caserne de Vincennes, the barracks of the old fort which the Germans stormed in 1870.

The troops were already drawn up for the execution. The twelve Zouaves, forming the firing squad, stood in line, their rifles at ease. A subofficer stood behind them, sword drawn.

The automobile stopped, and the party descended, Mata Hari last. The party walked straight to the spot, where a little hummock of earth reared itself seven or eight feet high and afforded a background for such bullets as might miss the human target.

As Father Arbaux spoke with the condemned woman, a French officer approached, carrying a white cloth.

‘The blindfold,’ he whispered to the nuns who stood there and handed it to them.

‘Must I wear that?’ asked Mata Hari, turning to her lawyer, as her eyes glimpsed the blindfold.

Maitre Clunet turned interrogatively to the French officer.

‘If Madame prefers not, it makes no difference,’ replied the officer, hurriedly turning away. .

Mata Hari was not bound and she was not blindfolded. She stood gazing steadfastly at her executioners, when the priest, the nuns, and her lawyer stepped away from her.*

The officer in command of the firing squad, who had been watching his men like a hawk that none might examine his rifle and try to find out whether he was destined to fire the blank cartridge which was in the breech of one rifle, seemed relieved that the business would soon be over.

A sharp, crackling command and the file of twelve men assumed rigid positions at attention. Another command, and their rifles were at their shoulders; each man gazed down his barrel at the breast of the women which was the target.

She did not move a muscle.

The underofficer in charge had moved to a position where from the corners of their eyes they could see him. His sword was extended in the air.

It dropped. The sun – by this time up – flashed on the burnished blade as it described an arc in falling. Simultaneously the sound of the volley rang out. Flame and a tiny puff of greyish smoke issued from the muzzle of each rifle. Automatically the men dropped their arms.

At the report Mata Hari fell. She did not die as actors and moving picture stars would have us believe that people die when they are shot. She did not throw up her hands nor did she plunge straight forward or straight back.

Instead she seemed to collapse. Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her. She lay prone, motionless, with her face turned towards the sky.

A non-commissioned officer, who accompanied a lieutenant, drew his revolver from the big, black holster strapped about his waist. Bending over, he placed the muzzle of the revolver almost – but not quite – against the left temple of the spy. He pulled the trigger, and the bullet tore into the brain of the woman.

Mata Hari was surely dead.

* Inevitably, a story got around that she’d opened her funereal coat to the firing squad, revealing no clothing beneath it.

Part of the Themed Set: Belles Epoque.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,History,Language,Netherlands,Popular Culture,Sex,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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