1592: The Uglich Bell

Add comment April 1st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1592, the bell of Uglich had its “tongue” cut out, then was sent to Siberian exile — the crowning indignity of the collective punishment visited on that Volga River town for the murder of Tsarevich Dmitri.

Eight years on from the death of the ferocious and epoch-making Ivan the Terrible, Russia was under the rule of the boyar Boris Godunov, governing in the stead of his brother-in-law, etiolated Ivan heir Tsar Feodor.*

Although rival interpretations exist,** the conventional understanding of events we shall detail here is that Godunov turned assassin in order to maintain his hold on power and, eventually, achieve the tsardom for himself.


Boris Godunov’s 1598 coronation, from the Mussorgsky opera Boris Godunov.

Not yet the tsar himself at this point, Godunov’s problem was that he exercised power only through Feodor … and that heirless sovereign had a (much) younger brother, our victim Tsarevich Dmitri, who in the fullness of time might easily come to supplant both Feodor and Godunov. Boris Godunov had hidden this moppet and his mum away in Uglich, where the child had his own court as Russia’s last appanage prince. The English diplomat Gil(l)es Fletcher† never met Dmitry but his 1591 Of the Russe Commonwealth caught the peril of the situation, with a bit of foreshadowing.

Besides the emperor that now is who hath no child (neither is like ever to have for ought that may be conjectured of his body and the barenness of his wife after so many years’ marriage),‡ there is but one more, viz., a child of six or seven years old in whom resteth all the hope of the succession and the posterity of that house

[The child] is kept in a remote place from the Moscow under the tuition of his mother and her kindred of the house of the Nagois, yet not safe (as I have heard) from attempts of making away by practice of some that aspire to the succession if this emperor die without any issue. The nurse that tasted before him of certain meat (as I have heard) died presently. That he is natural son to Ivan Vasil’evich the Russe people warrant it by the father’s quality that beginneth to appear already in his tender years. He is delighted (they say) to see sheep and other cattle killed and to look on their throats while they are bleeding (which commonly children are afraid to behold), and to beat geese and hens with a staff till he see them lie dead.

The court rumors about Dmitry’s danger were onto something. On May 15, 1591, the eight-year-old princeling was found dead. He’d been stabbed in the neck.

Dmitry’s mother had the local prelates ring the cathedral bell summoning townsfolk to the commons to announce the murder and accuse Boris Godunov’s agents of perpetrating it. Outrage and panic soon whipped people into a mob that rampaged through Uglich, lynching 15 people — including one of Dmitry’s playmates as well as Moscow’s dyak, Mikhail Bityagovsky.


18th century icon of the Tsarevich Dmitry “Uglichsky” (click for larger image) shows his murder (left), and the cathedral bell being sounded to instigate summary justice (right). At the base of the cathedral, Mikhail Bityagovsky tries to batter down the door to silence the alarm.

Dangerous to bystanders, this mob was impotent against the Russian state. Boris Godunov dispatched a delegation that whitewashed Dmitry’s murder and ruthlessly punished Uglich; some 200 are reported to have been put to death for the disturbances.

The bell itself received the crowning punishment on the first of April in 1592, as the literal physical instigator of the riot: hurled from its tower, it was flogged on the public square and mutilated by having its “tongue” (the clapper) torn out. Then it was sent into exile in Tobolsk, where it remained until the 19th century. It hangs today at Uglich’s Church of St. Dmitry on Blood, although — as detailed in the bell’s Russian Wikipedia page — there is some debate about its authenticity.

As for “Saint Dmitry”, his story was just beginning and the canonization wasn’t the half of it.

When Tsar Feodor died in 1598 and Boris Godunov seized the throne outright, Russia entered her “Time of Troubles” — fifteen terrible years of civil war, invasion, and contested succession that ended with the seating of the Romanov dynasty. The Time of Troubles was characterized by, among other things, several imposters claiming to be this very murdered Prince Dmitry and therefore the rightful tsar. False Dmitrys were so ubiquitous during this interregnum that they have their own pretender regnal numbering, but all were failures in the contest for power: False Dmitri I, False Dmitri II, and False Dmitry III each came to violent and sordid ends.

* Ivan the Terrible had a perfectly cromulent heir being groomed for power in the form of one Tsarevich Ivan, but the volatile tsar had struck him during an argument in 1581 and accidentally killed him — which brought the unprepared Feodor into the succession and set up the catastrophic events of this post, as well as this incredible Ilya Repin painting:


Detail view (click for the full image) of Repin’s rendering of the horrified Ivan the Terrible clutching his mortally wounded son.

** The other principal version (Russian link) is that Dmitry suffered an epileptic fit while playing a game with knives, and accidentally stabbed himself. Many Uglichans gave this story to the official investigation (more Russian) that ensued the prince’s death, but their testimony is hard to depend upon since the Godunov-affiliated authorities conducting the investigation (like Patriarch Job, whom Godunov had made metropolitan of Moscow) preferred that version and presumably made sure that they received it. After Godunov’s death the official story reassigned responsibility to him — although this again was driven by the political imperatives of that moment. Some historians down the years have given credence to the “accident” hypothesis.

† That’s Giles Fletcher the elder, who is not to be confused with his son, the poet Giles Fletcher the Younger.

‡ Feodor had only a single daughter, Feodosia, born in 1592 (she died in 1594). As of the time of Dmitry’s murder, Feodor was 33 years old and completely childless.

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1464: Johann Breyde, via Schandbild

Add comment April 1st, 2017 Headsman

On April 1, 1464 mayor of Cologne Johann Breyde was chopped into quarters … with ink.

This startling image does not depict an actual flesh-and-blood execution. It is, instead, an outstanding (and conveniently for our purposes, dated) instance of an artifact from medieval Germany, the Schandbild. Such “defamatory pictures” often supplemented a Schmahbrief or “defamatory letter” — intended, as the names suggest, to impugn publicly the target over a debt, a broken promise, or some other private breach of faith.

Something like 100 of these defamations survive from late medieval and early modern Germany (approximately 1400 to 1600), many of them fantasizing about their debtors’ executions in bloodthirsty scenes that also gesture to the place that ritual, spectacle, and dishonor held on the real-life gallows. Here are a few of the more piquant examples; many more await at a wonderful Pinterest gallery here.

The purpose of defamatory letters and pictures was to bring low the reputation of their target in the eyes of a wider community — leveraging social pressure either for revenge, or to force the defamed to repair the breach.

Matthias Lentz, one of the (regrettably few) historians working on these underappreciated objects, notes* that there are even surviving contracts from Germany, Bohemia and Poland enumerating an “explicit understand about injuring a person’s reputation and bringing dishonour upon a defaulting individual … a clause called Scheltklausel that laid down the practice of publicly scolding a defaulter.” For every Schandbild or Schmähbrief there must have been a dozen other potential swindlers quietly forced by the threat of public infamy to make good their contracts.

Per Lentz, the earliest known instance of an explicit contract dates to 1379, “wherein a ducal councillor accorded a nobleman, in eventuality of the former violating the terms of the contract, the right to denounce him as a fraud by ‘posting his name on the pillory [of the councillor’s home town], or wherever he likes'” — again, linking the “mere” text to the instruments of official corporal punishment.

Nor was it uncommon for the Schmähbrief, if things got to that point, to fantasize about the debtor’s bodily suffering in brutal terms that would like invite an investigation for terroristic threats were the modern debt collection call center to deploy them in its harangue. One quoted by Lentz captioned his illustration thus:

It is customary to judge thieves and traitors according to their offences, the first is sent to the gallows, the second broken on the wheel. As I have not got power to carry out the above-mentioned acts, it is my intention to use the painter to have them painted hanging from the gallows and being tortured on the wheel.

Still, Schandbilder und Schmähbriefe meant to intimidate not physically, but socially.** It was in this capacity that the iconography of the pillory and the scaffold entered the frame: ’twas an infamy to be exposed upon them for a public crime — serving as “an indictment of those who knew the criminal … [and] a punitive stigma over his or her relatives and friends.”† Posting a slur on the repute of a prominent person — for the targets were most always people of rank, who would feel an injury to their status — taxed this same, essential, civic currency.

This is why we should let his shameful picture hang here with his coat of arms, until he has given me compensation recognized by respectable people for those unwarranted things that he and his people did … and ask all those who seek charity, who see him painted hanging, that they let him hang. (Source)

By consequence the execution imagery was strictly optional, one iconographic choice among many. From the too-few examples that survive to us it is plain that creditors delighted in their symbolic chastisement, issuing all the obloquies a grievance could devise, untethered from the confines of possible or the … sanitary.


The Schandbild frequently evinced a scatological fixation.

* Quotes form Lentz’s “Defamatory Pictures and Letters in Late Medieval Germany: The Visualisation of Disorder and Infamy” in The Medieval History Journal, vol. 3, no. 1 (2000). Lentz also has several German-language journal titles on the same topic.

** Not necessarily true of their Italian cousins, pitture infamanti. These were a similar sort of thing, but were issued not privately but by the city-states themselves against absconded offenders — a sort of quasi-execution by effigy. Many of these were painted for public spaces and removed with the passage of time so we have lost exemplars, including the products of masters — the Medici, for example, commissioned Botticelli to grace Florence with pitture infamanti of the Pazzi conspirators, which were whitewashed in 1494.

A characteristic pose for these pictures, also used in Germany, had the “victim” hanging upside-down by one foot, conjoining “metaphors of inversion” (as Robert Mills puts it) to the disgrace of the gallows. This posture is commonly thought to have inspired the “Hanged Man” tarot card.


Left: a pittura infamante study by Florentine Renaissance artist Andrea del Sarto; right: the “hanged man” card from a tarot pack.

*† Maria Boes, “Public Appearance and Criminal Judicial Practices in Early Modern Germany,” Social Science History, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Summer, 1996)

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1698: Katharina Sommermeyer, Beierstedt witch

Add comment April 1st, 2016 Headsman

The last witch executed in the Saxon city of Braunschweig — Brunswick, in English — burned on this date in 1698.

Hers was a distinction that was long thought to adhere to the much better-documented Tempel Anneke, who suffered back in 1663. The eventual discovery in city archives of records for at least three later trials — Lucke Behrens in 1671, Elizabeth Lorentz in 1671, and our Katharina Sommermeyer in 1698 — corrected the record.

Unfortunately, only sketchy details are known about any of these women. Sommermeyer, the subject of our date’s small milestone, was a young woman of about 20, hailing from the tiny nearby village of Beierstedt. (Present-day population, according to Wikipedia: 386.)

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2013: A day in the death penalty around the Persian Gulf

2 comments April 1st, 2014 Headsman

A year ago today, three Persian Gulf states made the news for their April 1 executions.

Iraq

Iraq four people on April 1, 2013 for terrorism-related offenses, including Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi.

This onetime al-Qaeda figure once styled the “governor” of Baghdad was arrested in 2010 and actually cooperated with his captors, enabling U.S. and Iraqi officials to assassinate two other al-Qaeda leadersAbu Abdullah al-Rashid al-Baghdadi and the long-hunted Abu Ayyub al-Masri.


Munaf Abdul Rahim al-Rawi, in a 2010 interrogation

Such cooperation didn’t come with any assurance for safety of his own. After the operations his intelligence made possible, al-Rawi went on trial for his life. “One of the investigators said a death sentence is waiting for me,” he told a reporter nonchalantly. “I told him, ‘It is normal.'”

The hangings were Iraq’s 19th, 20th, 21st, and 22nd of the year.

Saudi Arabia

On April 1, 2013, Saudi Arabia beheaded Abdul Rahman Al Qah’tani in Riyadh. He “shot dead Saleh Moutared following a dispute.”

His was the 29th execution of the year.

Kuwait

Three men were hanged at the central jail in Sulaibiya, Kuwait, on April 1, 2013, the first executions in the gulf monarchy since May 2007.

  • Pakistani Parvez Ghulam, convicted of strangling a Kuwaiti couple in 2006.
  • Saudi Faisal Dhawi Al-Otaibi, who stabbed a friend to death.
  • A stateless Arab Bedouin, Dhaher (or Thaher) al-Oteibi, who killed his wife and children and claimed to be the long-awaited twelfth imam. One imagines there was conceivably some mental instability there.

Kuwait employed the gallows with some regularity, with 72 hangings from the death penalty’s introduction in 1964 up until 2007. At that point, it ceased carrying out executions without any public explanation, though it has never ceased handing down death sentences.

This date’s resumption of hangings did not play at subtlety: media invitations resulted in a harvest of gallows photography. (See below.)

“We have begun executing death sentences as criminality and brutality have increased in our community, and the court issues sentences for serious crimes on a daily basis,” Kuwaiti prosecutor Mohammad Al-Duaij said in announcing the hangings. “These executions should eliminate the increasing number of crimes and be a deterrent.”

He added, ominously, that the other 48 people then on Kuwaiti death row had had their cases submitted to the emir for approval.

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1916: Gabrielle Petit, Belgian spy

Add comment April 1st, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1916, German forces occupying Belgium shot Gabrielle Petit at Schaarbeek for espionage.

Petit, orphaned as a child, was a 21-year-old Brussels saleswoman and governess when the First World War began.

In 1914, she helped her wounded fiance, soldier Maurice Gobert, cross the front lines into the Netherlands to rejoin his unit.

This was already a no-no — just the thing, in fact, that would soon get British nurse Edith Cavell shot by the Hun. But Petit went way beyond into outright espionage.

Having impressed British officers upon her successful delivery of Maurice by relating everything she could remember about the German army’s disposition, she got a crash course in spycraft and returned back over the lines. For a year and a half, she continued funneling information about troop movements as well as distributing the then-underground (but today still-extant) newspaper La Libre Belgique.

Captured in February 1916, she refused to trade her life for the identity of any other operative, and was shot for spying.

Although Gabrielle Petit didn’t get anything like Nurse Cavell’s wartime propaganda play, her story became well-known after the Armistice and resulted in a state funeral, various films and books, and a monument in Brussels’ Place Saint-Jean.


(cc) image from dogfael.

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1872: William Frederick Horry, Marwood’s first

8 comments April 1st, 2012 Headsman

If Pa killed Ma, who’d kill Pa?

Marwood.

-Victorian riddle/pun

On this date in 1872, the landmark hanging career of William Marwood commenced — when, having persuaded the authorities at Lincoln Castle Gaol, he executed his very first subject.

The man of the milestone was William Frederick Horry, a Boston native — not Boston, Massachusetts, but the Lincolnshire port that was its namesake.

“Fred” wed Jane and the two ran The George Hotel in Burslem together.

Until Fred’s drunken, possessive outbursts led Jane to flee the house. Let it be said that a partnership in the hospitality industry might not be the ideal choice for your controlling type.

Jane and the couple’s three children actually took refuge with Fred’s own kin, the husband’s father barring his own son from the home. Horry got around that by showing up with a revolver and shooting her dead in an act of coldly calculated passion: he immediately handed the gun to his stunned brother and stayed to await arrest, saying, “You have no notion, Tom, how I loved that woman, but I could not stand the jealousy.” Nor did he show any interest in appealing for clemency; he hanged within days of his conviction.

If this reads to modern eyes like the unedifying passion play of an abusive, loutish spouse, many in Burslem were ready to consider Fred Horry “a martyr, more sinned against than sinning.” (The funeral oration of a rector!) Three thousand people lined the streets to respectfully see Horry’s coffin to its rest; even the requisite crime broadsheet concurred in the apparent public judgment about Jane’s culpably easy virtue.

Now all you who give way to jealous passion,
And the crimes which it entails,
I hope that you will learn a lesson,
From my sad and mournful tale.
Their married life has ended early,
For his wife he says his temper tried
But for them now it is all ended,
For her faults she bled and died.

Supporters erected a monolith in his honor, an unusual tribute for a wife-murderer.


The man tasked to mete out the lesson for Horry’s jealous passion was, heretofore, a Horncastle cobbler.

Already into his fifties by this time, William Marwood was strictly self-educated in the science of hanging … but it is he who would bring the exacting mechanical arts to the hangman’s ancient craft.

(Actually, Marwood was fond of distinguishing himself from the mere hangman. “Calcraft hanged them,” he said of his notoriously slipshod predecessor’s operations. “I execute them.” He went so far as to assert his professionalism with business cards.)

To make this famous mark in the annals of capital punishment, Marwood the cobbler first had to talk his way into the Horry job. This was surely facilitated by the fact that the most recent execution at Lincoln Castle, that of Priscilla Biggadike or Biggadyke, had been a bit of a botch, with one of the realm’s forgettable barely-competent hangmen clumsily fitting the noose to the front of the convict’s throat on the supposition that this would snap her neck. Instead, she strangled.

Marwood’s arrival spelled the quick end to folklore and guesswork on the scaffold; his was the rational hand of industrial Britain finally touching the ancient hanging ritual.

For most of English history, the hanging had entailed simply shoving the unfortunate subject off a ladder or a cart, leaving them to gradually choke to death at the end of the noose. This protracted process was sometimes associated with unruly public scenes, and with “executed” criminals surviving (and even intentionally calculating to survive) the hanging. “Such as have but a very superficial Notion of Anotomy, may easily conceive how a Person very soon cut down may shew even strong Signs of Life,” the Ordinary of Newgate had passingly remarked in 1736, as if it really were no big deal.

Of course, it had long been understood that adding a little plummet could generate the force necessary to break the neck, to the advantage of both speed and certainty. Guy Fawkes is supposed to have exploited the carelessness of a Stuart executioner to hurl himself off the ladder when they were just setting up for the non-fatal hanging portion of his “hanged, drawn, and quartered” sentence — and thereby cleverly offed himself before they could do the agonizing Braveheart bits to his living body.

Small drops came into use with the move towards hanging platforms late in the 18th century, and by the mid-19th century larger drops of some kind were standard operating procedure: witness the description of the setup for the country’s first private hanging a few years before our date.

But the length and the nature of the drop remained very much within individual hangmen’s ad hoc discretion. The science of dropping would only arrive in the 1860s and 1870s. Until then, execution bulletins reporting that the unhappy soul “died hard” denoted the frequent occasions when death was effected via agonizing minutes of choking spasms. Even in the London Times‘ Dec. 22, 1875 report on one such man who “died hard” noted that “in the memory of Mr. John Rowland Gibson, the prison surgeon, extending, in that capacity, over more than 40 years, there are only two instances on record in Newgate of the neck of a convict having been dislocated during execution.”

Aiming to remedy that substandard record, the Irish doctor Samuel Haughton in 1866 published a landmark paper, “On hanging considered from a Mechanical and Physiological point of view” (read it here), in which he noted that whereas a short-dropped prisoner’s death by apoplexy or asphyxiation is “preceded by convulsions, lasting from five to forty-five minutes,” a broken neck “is instantaneous and painless, and is unaccompanied by any convulsive movement whatever.”

“It seems to me unworthy of the present state of science,” Haughton continued, “to continue a mode of execution which, as at present used, is extremely clumsy and also painful to the criminal.”

In a mass of equations abstractly working out foot-pounds’ shock expended on the neck and which vertebrae constituted the superior articulating surface, Haughton proceeded to suggest a protocol (adapted from the American drop method) “to give hanging all the rapidity of death by the guillotine without the painful spectacle of bloodshed.”

Haughton was just a theorist. Marwood actually put those concepts into practice.

Marwood is presumed to have been influenced by Haughton’s studies; although the basis for that renowned hangmanexecutioner‘s calculations is not known, Marwood is distinguished as the creator of the “long drop” hanging method — giving variable 4- to 10-foot falls to his subjects based on their body weight, with the knot stationed under the left jawline.

He was able to do all that because this first hanging of William Horry went off without a hitch. Still, as a nonentity at first, Marwood had to continue to hustle his hanging assignments — as with this solicitous handwritten 1873 pitch (page 1, page 2) to work an upcoming death date.

But Marwood’s clean long drops — he was the only executioner using the technique — soon secured him appointment as state executioner and the official London and Middlesex hangman. Over an 11-year career from 1872 to 1883, Marwood put 178 humans to death, the bulk of British executions during that period.

Marwood’s legacy — not his direct creation, since it was formalized in the years following his death — was the bureaucratic standardization of the hanging in the form of “drop tables” defining the length of rope to use relative to the weight of the executed prisoner to guarantee the death penalty would be implemented “in a becoming manner without risk of failure or miscarriage in any respect.”

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1942: Not Hersh Smolar, saved by Genesis

2 comments April 1st, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, the Nazis issued an ultimatum to the Judenrat of the Minsk Ghetto in Belarus: turn over Hersh Smolar for torture and execution by noon, or they would all face execution themselves.

Smolar, a dedicated Communist who was a writer and editor in civilian life, had been a problem for the Germans for quite some time. He was a leader in the resistance of the Minsk Ghetto, and that resistance was a force to be reckoned with. Smolar and others like him formed an underground organization that printed leaflets about Soviet successes in the war, occasionally hid non-Jewish Communists and escaped Russian prisoners of war within the ghetto (the infectious disease ward of the hospital was a great hiding place: the Germans never went there), and above all tried to save the lives of as many Jews as possible.

The Minsk Ghetto underground formed links with underground resistance organizations on the outside and they worked together. Unlike the rest of Eastern Europe, the general population of Belarus was as a whole sympathetic and helpful to the Jews. The result was that Jews were able to escape the ghetto and join partisan groups in the forest by the thousands, surviving and taking out Nazis at the same time.

The Minsk Ghetto leaked like a sieve. By the time it was liquidated, 10,000 of its residents had joined partisan groups in the forest.

Smolar, of course, had tried to keep his activities a secret from the Nazis, but he couldn’t avoid their attention forever. Unfortunately the Minsk Ghetto Underground wasn’t very good at keeping itself a secret and twice it was decimated by mass arrests.

By the spring of 1942, Smolar was a hunted man, and in hiding. On April 1 he was in the hospital’s infectious disease ward, disguised as a typhus patient, meaning his face could be covered. (Typhus patients suffer extreme sensitivity to light.) The Judenrat paid him a visit and told him about the Nazis’ ultimatum.

Some of the Judenrat members were prepared to turn Smolar in, so only one person would have to die. Of course, the ideal solution would be where no one would die. They turned to the Tanakh for guidance, specifically the story of Joseph. When Joseph’s brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt and told their father he had died, they dipped his coat in the blood of a kid and presented this as proof of his death.

Displaying the sincerest and brassiest form of flattery, one of the Judenrat members took a blank passport, filled it out with Smolar’s photograph and details, smeared it with blood from a recent Nazi victim, and took it to the Gestapo officers. He explained that they had apparently gotten Smolar in a random shooting, as the passport had just been found on a mutilated body at the cemetery.

And the Germans actually fell for this. April Fools!

Barbara Epstein’s excellent book The Minsk Ghetto 1941-1943: Jewish Resistance and Soviet Internationalism records the rest of the story: Smolar remained in hiding in the hospital for another four months. Eventually he left the infectious disease ward and moved to a specially constructed hiding place in the attic chimney, which was only large enough to stand in.

Presumably he was very happy in August 1942, when the time came for him to leave the ghetto and join a partisan group in the forest. He survived the war … as did about 4,500 other Jewish partisans from the Minsk Ghetto.

Smolar wrote a memoir about his experiences and the Minsk Ghetto Underground in general, titled The Minsk Ghetto: Soviet-Jewish Partisans Against the Nazis. He died in Israel in 1993, age 88.

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1965: John Harris, white anti-apartheid martyr

10 comments April 1st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, John Harris hanged in Pretoria Central Prison for an anti-apartheid bombing: the first and only white person put to death for political crimes in apartheid South Africa.

An idealistic young teacher, Harris planted a bomb in a whites-only section of Johannesburg’s Park Station, intending to demonstrate that whites, too, opposed racial segregation. But the bomb threat he phoned in was not acted upon, and the symbolic device killed a 77-year-old woman and badly burned many others.

5.30 am was the time set for the execution. We were all awake, thinking of John. Not long afterwards the phone rang. Ad Hain answered. The voice said: “Your John is dead.” She recognised the voice as one of the Special Branch men’s.

-John Harris’s widow’s testimony to the post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission

His death (reportedly with “We Shall Overcome” on his lips) earned affecting tribute and flattering comparisons from his black countrymen.

Mr. Harris, a teacher and a member of the Liberal Party since 1960, is one of those few courageous White men in South Africa who believed passionately in racial equality, identified himself with the oppressed people and suffered persecution. His passport was seized in 1963. He was served with banning orders in February 1964 preventing him from continuing his work with the Liberal Party and the Non-racial Olympic Committee.

Like many others, he became convinced that there was no way left to influence the situation except by clandestine activity. When most of his colleagues in the underground organization, the African Resistance Movement, were jailed or fled the country, he tried to plan a spectacular demonstration. He placed a bomb in the Johannesburg station and telephoned the police so that the area would be cleared. The police did not act promptly and an elderly lady lost her life as a result of the explosion.

Under the prevailing circumstances in South Africa, the means of struggle are for the liberation movement to decide in the light of the conditions in the country.

The responsibility for the consequences lies very much on the rulers of Pretoria who, in defiance of the world and all sense of decency, created a situation which left no other alternative to decent people than to engage in violence.

In mourning the execution of Mr. Frederick John Harris, let me say that it will not be forgotten that in the struggle of the South African people this man, a member of the privileged group, gave his life because of his passionate belief in racial equality. This will serve to strengthen the faith of all those who fight against the danger of a “race war” and retain their faith that all human beings can live together in dignity irrespective of the colour of their skin.

I have recently received a message sent by him from his death cell in Pretoria Central Prison in January. He wrote:

“The support and warm sympathy of friends has been and is among my basic reinforcements. I daily appreciate the accuracy of the observation that when one really has to endure one relies ultimately on Reason and Courage. I’ve been fortunate in that the first has stood up — my ideals and beliefs have never faltered. As for the second, well, I’m not ashamed — I know I’ve shown at least a modicum of the second. ”

When I think of John Harris, the first White martyr in the cause of equality in South Africa, I am reminded powerfully of a great White American, a man who gave his life over a century ago — on December 2, 1859, to be exact — because of his passionate hatred of slavery: I mean John Brown.

People said then that John Brown was eccentric, that he was unwise in attacking the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia, and that his act would only strengthen the slave lords.

History has made a very different judgement. Whether the particular act of John Brown was right or wrong, wise or unwise, his cause was right and invincible.

-1965 statement on this date’s hanging by Achkar Marof

Harris’s conviction was secured with the states-evidence turn of one of his compatriots in the white anti-apartheid African Resistance Movement. For this betrayal, John Lloyd earned his freedom and had already moved to England by the time Harris was executed.

Lloyd built a public service life of his own in the UK. However, his bid for parliament on the Labour ticket in the 1990s was scotched when public exposure of his past (as (a) a leftist terrorist; and (b) a betrayer of his fellow-leftists) brought him more baggage than one man can tote in a general election.

Harris’s rough treatment under arrest also continues to haunt his former interrogators in South Africa.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Milestones,Murder,South Africa,Terrorists

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1691: Jack Withrington, highwayman

2 comments April 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1691, highwayman Jack Withrington hanged at Tyburn.

THIS fellow was the youngest of five brothers, who were all born at Blandford, in Dorsetshire. The other four were all hanged in the country, but Jack had the good fortune to be reserved for Tyburn, and by that means to have his name transmitted to posterity. He was bound to a tanner in Shaftesbury, a town in his native county, with whom he served about three years. Then he entered into the Earl of Oxford’s Regiment of Horse, in which, when Monmouth‘s rebellion was suppressed in the West of England, he came up to London, where he soon met with opportunities of discovering his valour to the world. These occasions were two quarrels in which he was engaged: the first with a man famous for fighting, against whom he behaved with so much bravery and skill that it won him a vast reputation; the second with a person of great estate, but a noted coward, when he showed himself a gentleman by his adherence to the point of honour and good breeding. By these duels he won abundance of applause, so as thereby to contract a familiarity with all the greatest fighting men of the time, especially those in his own regiment. Withrington however carried his manhood so far as to get himself turned out of the regiment within a year after, for challenging his captain. He then became a perfect bully and gamester; and, being fortunate, in a little time by these means saw himself master of a considerable sum of money. Notwithstanding all this good luck at first, he found himself afterwards subject to the fate of gamesters —- viz. to be frequently without money in spite of his large winnings. This brought him at last to consider the uncertainty of Fortune and endeavour to make himself master of her, by supplying with fraud what he might want in plain open skill. But this also did not continue long; for everyone began to be aware of him as a common sharper, and none who knew him would venture to play with him.

In the common scale of knavery the next step above a sharper is a downright thief. Withrington made bold to ascend this degree, and was resolved to take the most honourable station thereon, that of a highwayman. He had money enough to buy him a good horse and accoutrements, so that the resolution and the real attempt were not long asunder. His first adventure was with a farmer, from whom he took forty pounds, giving him in return only an impudent harangue, occasioned by the countryman’s reproaching him with the robbery.

The next that fell in Withrington’s way was Mr Edward Clark, gentleman usher to the Duchess of Mazarin. They met in Devonshire, on the road between Chudleigh and Ashburton. Mr Clark made some resistance, so that in the scuffle Withrington’s mask fell off and discovered his face, which Mr Clark knowing, he called him by his name, and said he hoped he would not rob an old acquaintance. “Indeed I shall, sir,” quoth Withrington, “for you get your money much easier than I do, who am forced to venture my life for a maintenance; you have so much a year for eating, drinking and entertaining your lady with scandal and nonsense. What I shall take from you will do you little harm; it is only putting a higher price upon half-a-score reputations, which you know how to do as well as any coxcomb in England. Ladies never let such faithful servants go unrewarded, nor will yours suffer your loss to fall on yourself.” He got about eight guineas out of this gentleman’s pocket, and for old acquaintance sake bade him “Good-b’w’ye” very heartily.

Withrington’s robberies in less than a year and a half were talked of almost all over the kingdom. But alas! he met with a diversion, common to mankind, that draws even the most stupid into the rank of polite persons. The poor man was in love; and with whom but a rich widow inn-keeper in Bristol! Farewell to the highway: Withrington has another scent to pursue. No more robberies to be thought of from a man who was himself robbed of his heart! He employed an old bawd in the affair, who was intimately acquainted with our hostess, and by this flesh-broker’s mediation things had like to have come to an issue, and Jack to have been master of the Swan Inn. In short, there was nothing prevented it but the accidental coming of a certain gentleman, who knew our highwayman, and informed his mistress what he was. The effects of this discovery were Jack’s being kicked out of doors by the ostler and chamberlain, and the commitment of madam the negotiatress to Bridewell, in order to mill Dolly.

After his return to the highway he and one of his companions met with Mr Thompson, a noted tailor, in a part of Hertfordshire that was convenient for robbing. They took from him about thirty pounds in silver, and then, dismounting him, they ordered him to stay where he was till they brought him more company. As soon as they were gone from him he remounted his horse and attempted to ride off as fast as he could; but our highwaymen perceiving what he was at, and having the best horses, they fetched him back, and mistrusting he had more money, by his being in so much haste, they searched him afresh, he protesting all the while that he had not so much as a farthing left if it were to save his soul. In a literal sense he might be right; but they made a shift to find forty guineas, which they thought better than farthings. Withrington upon this exclaimed that it was a sad thing that one Christian could not believe another! They then shot his horse, to put a stop to his speed, and so rode away and left him.

These, we pause to digress, are not the only stock and store among the (surely half-legendary) c.v. of this colorful bandit. The verbosely entitled Complete History of the Lives and Robberies of the Most Notorious Highwaymen, Footpads, Shoplifts and Cheats of Both Sexes reports that Withrington delivered himself of an even wordier critique of the nascent economic order of the day.

[T]ravelling the road, he met a rich farmer, from whom he took £40. Quoth he, Is not this a downright robbery? Roberry? replied Withrington; So let it be; who is there now-a-days does not rob? The tailor steals before his customer’s face; the weaver steals by eking out the length of a piece of cloth with the remainder of broken ends; the surgeon steals by prolonging a cure; the apothecary steals with a quid pro quo, using one drug for another for cheapness, without any regard to the age and constitution of the patient; the merchant steals by putting his money into the Bank of England; the scrivener steals by selling the soul of a poor man for the money that he can take of a forfeit; the grocer steals by using false weights; the vintner steals by adulterating his wine; the butcher steals by blowing up his meat; the victualler steals by drawing in short measures; the cook steals by roasting his meat twice over; the baker steals by raising his bread when there’s no occasion; and the shoe-maker steals by stretching his leather as much as he does his conscience. Thus, as there is cheating and cozening in all trades but mine, you cannot blame me for borrowing this small trifle; which I shall honestly pay you when we meet again; so till then, farewell.

And a bit of, er, gallantry.

Another time Jack Withrington meeting a gentleman and his wife on the road betwixt St. Albans and Dunstable, he very submissively craved their benevolence; but they not instantly granting his request, he shot the horse on which they both rode, and swore that as he denied him his money, he would take his wife. So forcing her into an adjacent copse, and acting a man’s part by her, he restored her to her husband again, from whom taking eleven or twelve guineas he said, This is no more than my due for I am not obliged to do your drudgery for nothing.

Rape and repartee! Dreamy.

But we know where this is heading.

The last robbery Withrington committed was alone. He stopped a nobleman on Hounslow Heath attended by two footmen. There was a short dispute, but Withrington having the best of it, he took a portmanteau in which were two hundred and eighty guineas, sixty pounds in silver, and a parcel of fine linen. A hue and cry was soon issued out after him, and he was apprehended by means of it at Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, from whence he was removed to London, where he was condemned for this fact.

The sentence of death seemed to have no effect on his temper, for he was as gay and humorous under that circumstance as ever he had been before. When he was riding up Holborn Hill he ordered the cart to stop, and calling up the Sheriff’s deputy, “Sir,” said he, “I owe a small matter at the Three Cups, a little farther on, for which I am afraid of being arrested as I go by the door; therefore I shall be much obliged to you if you will be pleased to carry me down Shoe Lane and bring me up Drury Lane again into the road by which I am to travel this devilish long journey.” The deputy informed him that if such a mischance should happen he should come to no damage. “For,” says he, “I’ll be bail for you myself, rather than you shall go back to prison again.” “Thank you heartily, sir,” quoth Jack; “I protest I could not have thought that I had a friend in the world who would have stood by me so in such a time of need.” After this he rode very contentedly to the place of execution, where he was tucked up with as little ceremony as usual. This fatal day was Wednesday, the 1st of April, in the year 1691.

Part of the Themed Set: Selections from the Newgate Calendar.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Gallows Humor,Hanged,Outlaws,Pelf,Public Executions,Theft

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