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.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Fictional,Jordan,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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Nine Executed People Who Make Great Halloween Costumes

9 comments October 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Executed Today’s Guide to Halloween, Part I (Click here for Part II.)

Grim, ghastly, and gruesome — it must be election time Halloween!

The grisliest tricks of the past are the tastiest treats of the season, and that makes Executed Today purpose-built for the occasion. Heck … that’s why it’s our anniversary.

That’s also why it’s rich with ghoulish inspiration for your Halloween costume.

For all the severed heads and flayed skins around here, the set of execution victims who are Halloween-ready is a limited one. It’s just not enough to be famous (or infamous); one must also have an iconography recognizable enough to get the public credit you deserve for your inspired disguise.

If you happen to roll with a crowd that’s totally going to get your Savonarola outfit, more power to you. The rest of us have to play to the masses.

But some few of our principals fit the bill well enough to be fine Halloween choices without too much exertion in the prep department.

Anne Boleyn

Even a character as renowned as Anne Boleyn is a little hard to play: quick, what does she look like?

But between The Tudors and The Other Boleyn Girl, there’s a current pop-culture context for the character (and plenty of precedents). Tudor garb plus the famous “B” necklace will be a dead giveaway for those in the know. For extra credit, add a prosthetic sixth finger to simulate her alleged polydactylism.

Accessories: Date decked out as Henry VIII … or as the French swordsman who beheaded her.

Marie Antoinette

You could rock this collection of Antoinette portraits, but unless you’re designing for a movie, an 18th century gown and a big tall stack of hair ought to do the trick.

Though ahistorical for Marie herself, a red ribbon around the neck, a la the post-Terror “Victim’s Balls”, makes a nice twist.

Accessories: Bring cake.

Joan of Arc

Armor, a Christian emblem, and a tomboyish look will take you home. Totally roust any English you come across.

Accessories: Business cards reading “Miss of Arc”.

Mata Hari

There’s the intrinsic sensuality of death and all, but the famous stripper-spy is this blog’s best choice for a sexy look still true to the theme.

Mata Hari was known for her (supposedly) Indian outfits and routines.

Accessories: Orientalism, by Edward Said.

Guy Fawkes

“The only man to enter parliament with honest intentions”: that is, to blow it up.

That V for Vendetta mask is re-usable for Guy Fawkes Day on — remember, remember? — the fifth of November.

Accessories: Let’s just say it’s nothing they’ll let you take on an airplane.

Charles I

Cromwell succeeded where Fawkes failed, at least as pertains the royal person. And if you’re the type who can sell a Charles I costume — possibly requiring a fairly highbrow room — you’ll have nigh outstripped the achievements of both.

The lush coiffure, the wispy facial hair, the delicate movements … not everyone can pull that stuff off. If you can, get your Alec Guinness impression down and you’re on your way to a date at Whitehall.

Accessories: The whole point is to wear the silly hat, isn’t it?

William Wallace

Francophiles may go for Vercingetorix, but Mel Gibson made Wallace the barbarian everyone loves to hang, draw and quarter.

Don’t neglect to bellow “FREEDOM!” repeatedly at the top of your lungs. Everyone loves that.

[audio:William_Wallace_Freedom_Speech.mp3]

Accessories: That big, swingin’ sword. You know what I’m talking about.

Saddam Hussein

Gone but not forgotten, Saddam offers a variety of looks:

  • Beaten, older Saddam, with salt-and-pepper beard (wear the noose with this look, unless you’re a dead ringer);
  • Haggard, fresh-captured Saddam (not recommended; neither the goofball look nor the implicit triumphalism square with the known sequel)
  • Younger, despotic Saddam, with crazy smile and military fatigues;
  • The Coen brothers’ “bowling alley Saddam” that can double as duds for your neighborhood Lebowski Fest.

Accessories: Be sure to complete the outfit by bringing Colin Powell. Seriously, he’ll be grateful for something to do.

Che Guevara

Love him or hate him, no post-World War II icon is more instantly recognizable than the Cuban guerrilla. Do your part, comrade! Contribute to the posthumous appropriation of his image with a “revolutionary” is-that-ironic-or-not-? Che costume.

Accessories: Che Guevara cigarettes. Che Guevara ankle socks. There’s no shortage of Che Guevara accessories to choose from; for a more meta look, go as Che’s mediated historical image by simply dressing entirely in various Che-branded apparel.

Creative Commons pumpkin image courtesy of fabbio

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Entry Filed under: Administrative Messages

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1649: Charles I

34 comments January 30th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1649, the struggle between parliament and crown cost the Stuart monarch Charles I his head.

Charles‘ political clumsiness and unreconstructed authoritarianism had seen the realm whose unitary sovereignty he insisted upon blunder from disaster to disaster: into bankruptcy, military defeat, religious conflict and the English Civil War.

The assignation of cause and consequence in that war’s genesis has much exercised historians.

What is beyond dispute is that the confrontation between monarch and subject, pitting against each other political and economic epochs, theories of state and power, rates as one of history’s most captivating courtroom dramas.

Charles refused to answer the court’s charge of treason, occasioned most particularly by the king’s fomenting the Second Civil War while already a defeated prisoner of parliament following the first Civil War. He rested firmly on royal prerogatives against what some interlocutors take to be an almost desperate plea by his judges for some hint of acknowledgment that could open the door to compromise:

[A] King cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth. But it is not my case alone — it is the freedom and the liberty of the people of England. And do you pretend what you will, I stand more for their liberties — for if the power without law may make laws, may alter the fundamental laws of the kingdom, I do not know what subject he is in England that can be sure of his life or anything that he calls his own. Therefore, when that I came here I did expect particular reasons to know by what law, what authority, you did proceed against me here.

It must be borne in mind that the trial of a king was a completely unprecedented event. Charles might be forgiven his attitude, even if it smacked of the impolitic high-handedness that had forced this deadly test of powers.

Parliament’s position — here in the words of its President — is distinctly in the stream of political discourse (if not always actual practice) ascendant in the West to this day.

Sir, as the law is your superior, so truly, sir, there is something that is superior to the law and that is indeed the parent or author of the law — and that is the people of England.

And therefore, sir, for this breach of trust when you are called to account, you are called to account by your superiors — “when a king is summoned to judgment by the people, the lesser is summoned by the greater.”

The modern and the medieval, facing each other at the bar.


A fragment from a World War II bomb-damaged and only-recently-rediscovered Hippolyte Delaroche painting situating Charles in the Christlike pose of enduring the mockery of his captors.

Charles played his lordly disdain to the end, refusing to admit parliament’s jurisdiction by making any sort of plea.

The line between heroic defiance and pig-headed obstinacy being very much in the eye of the beholder, the confrontation is typically played straight-up for its arresting clash of principles — as in the 1970 biopic Cromwell, with Alec Guinness as the monarch:Probably more troubling for the parliamentary party than the regicide taboo was consideration that the execution would transfer royalist loyalties from a man safely imprisoned to an heir beyond their power, who could be expected to (as in fact he did) resume the civil war.

Competing philosophies expounded for the competing interests; the dispute involved the era’s intellectual titans, in conflict over the most fundamental concepts of the state. Thomas Hobbes wrote his magnum opus The Leviathan as a royalist exile in Paris, and its abhorrence for rebellion and divided sovereignty unmistakably reflects the English Civil War experience. John Milton earned his bread as a republican polemicist; his poetic celebration of Satan’s failed rebellion in Paradise Lost, written after the Stuart restoration, can be read as a political critique.

Separated at the block? Charles I and Hobbes’ Leviathan

It’s conventionally thought that the beheading was conducted by a radical minority, though that supposition is debatable, colored as it is by the ultimate restoration of the crown. But although England would have a king again, the weight of political authority would steadily, permanently, gravitate towards parliament, organ of the merchant classes who would steer England henceforward.

Did it have the right? Two implacable powers each claimed an indivisible object; “between equal rights, force decides.” So on this cold winter’s afternoon — Charles wore thick undergarments, so he would not shiver with the appearance of fright — the deposed king was marched to a scaffold erected at Whitehall. He gave a short final address, with the famous words for his principle of martyrdom — “a sovereign and a subject are clean different things” — then laid his head on a low block, where a masked executioner (never definitively identified) cleanly chopped it off.

After the monarchy’s restoration, Charles was canonized as a saint by the Church of England: he’s still the last person so venerated, an odd salute to a mortal career of unalloyed arrogance and incompetence. Observance of the cult was toned down in the 19th century, although a Society of King Charles the Martyr dedicated to its preservation still exists; monarchists of a more secular inclination also continue to mark his martyrdom on this anniversary.

Less reverent by far was Monty Python’s homage:

“The most interesting thing about King Charles the First is that he was five foot six inches tall at the start of his reign, but only four foot eight inches tall at the end of it.”

Part of the Themed Set: The English Reformation.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Treason

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