1851: James Jones and Levi Harwood, but not Hiram Smith

Add comment April 15th, 2016 Headsman

For the April 15, 1851 hanging of James Jones (James Burbage was his actual name) and Levi Harwood, we crib from PlanetSlade’s collection of murder ballads. While this ballad amply narrates the murder committed in a home invasion, click through to PlanetSlade to find out about the third man who wasn’t hanged — the one who actually pulled the fatal trigger, but who saved himself by testifying for the crown to send his mates to the gallows.

Of all the crimes on Earth the worst,
Foul murder is of all accursed,
Assassins are by all abhorred,
Despised by men, condemned by God.

We are condemned and death is nigh,
And in two dismal cells we lie,
James Jones and Harwood: it is true,
We’ve murder done, no pity knew.

A minister of God we’ve slain,
For sake of gold, man’s curse and bane,
Poor Mr Hollest kind and good,
We left him weltering in his blood.

To Frimley Grove, ’twas there we went,
On robbing we were fully bent,
The rector’s house we soon broke in,
And then to plunder did begin.

With faces masked, disguised to all,
And pistols loaded well with ball,
Like vile assassins on we crept,
To where the good old couple slept.

But Mrs Hollest struggled brave,
And nobly fought their lives to save,
Undaunted, boldly bore her part,
A woman with a warrior’s heart.

Her husband had one ruffian down,
And held him firmly on the ground,
The coward wretch for help did call,
‘Twas then the other fired his ball.

Thy wound was fatal, good old man,
Thy blood in streams around it ran,
We both escaped while thou didst bleed,
And now we suffer for the deed.

How could we thus such monsters prove,
To murder those whom all did love?
To want thou didst assistance lend,
And ever was the poor man’s friend.

Widows weep thy loss: they mourn,
The only friend they had is gone,
And orphans’ tears they quickly fall,
For thou a father’s been to all.

And Mrs Hollest? She was kind,
Distress in her a friend did find,
Her sole delight it seemed to be,
To dry the tears of misery.

So we confess the crimes we’ve done,
Is there no hope on Earth? There’s none,
Grim death will drag us to the tomb,
A scaffold is the murderers’ doom.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Public Executions,Theft

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1715: Thomas Nairne, Charles Town Indian agent

Add comment April 15th, 2015 Headsman

The generations-long conquest of indigenous peoples in North America might look from posterity like a historical ienvitability, but the 1715-1718 Yamasee War was perhaps “as close to wiping out the European colonists as ever [they] came during the colonial period.” (Gary Nash, quoted by William Ramsey in “‘Something Cloudy in Their Looks': The Origins of the Yamasee War Reconsidered”, Journal of American History, June 2003. This post draws heavily from Ramsey’s article, which is the source of any quote not otherwise attributed.) In it, not only the Yamasee but a vast coalition of peoples throughout what is today the United States Southeast nearly swept the British out of South Carolina.

And it started three hundred years ago today with some executions.

British South Carolina had extensive trading contacts with the native peoples in their environs — acquiring deerskins and Indian slaves for the plantation colony — and said trading had too often been a flashpoint between alien cultures. South Carolina’s annals record a number of instances of natives crudely abused by Anglo merchants, including women whose bodies were next to sacrosanct for the matrilineal Yamasee, and traders aggressively taking slaves even from friendly tribes. Many years later a Lower Creek man would recall that “we lived as brothers for some time till the traders began to use us very ill and wanted to enslave us which occasioned a war.”

It has never been entirely clear just why and how such individual abuses, even as a pattern, triggered in 1715 something as drastic as military action; our source William Ramsey suspects that they only hint at much wider-ranging economic pressures of the Atlantic economy, which entangled native peoples in debt and warped traditional lifeways towards producing ever more deerskins for export, obtained at ever poorer prices from ever more belligerent merchants.

Just as trade relations were at their most antagonistic, the colonial capital Charles Town fell down on the diplomatic side of the job. (This is, again, per Ramsey.)

The colony had created in 1707 an office of Indian Agent.

Intended to manage the complications of its sometimes-delicate cross-cultural trade and police the traders, the post instead became a locus of bitter competition between two men: Thomas Nairne and John Wright. (There’s a 1710 account of South Carolina in Nairne’s hand available here.) These two men, South Carolina’s most expert Indian diplomats and the only two men ever to hold the Indian agent office, had by the 1713-1715 period become consumed with their internal rivalry. Wright, a trader who thought Nairne too accommodating of the natives generally and unduly meddlesome with Wright’s own commerce specifically, bombarded the latter with lawsuits; Nairne eventually had to stay in Charles Town almost permanently to protect his own affairs. The colony’s diplomatic voice fell silent — which meant that rapacious traders squeezing mounting debts on their spring rounds in 1715 were that voice.

In annoyance, one tribe returned an ultimatum to Charles Town: “upon the first Afront from any of the Traders they would down with them and soe goe on with itt.” (See The Southern Frontier, 1670-1732)

That warning got the colony’s attention.

The Indian Agent rivals Wright and Nairne were dispatched together to meet with the Yamasees at Pocotaligo and smooth things over. But just as these men stood at loggerheads professionally, they were noted for quite distinct policies towards the Indians: Nairne was the friendly hand, the man who sympathized with natives. Wright was the asshole. If their joint presence was intended to be a good cop-bad cop act, they carried it off as clumsily as their mutual antipathy might suggest.

In a famous meeting on the night of April 14, Nairne, Wright, and a number of traders seemingly reassured the Yamasees over a feast that their grievances would be redressed, and went to sleep satisfied that matters were well in hand.

It was not so for the Yamasees, who held council that night after the Europeans were tucked away. An unknown Indian leader who signed himself “the Huspaw King” would later dictate a letter to a hostage charging that at the April 14 meeting

Mr. Wright said that the white men would come and fetch [illegible] the Yamasees in one night and that they would hang four of the head men and take all the rest of them for slaves, and that he would send them all off the country, for he said that the men of the Yamasees were like women, and shew’d his hands one to the other, and what he said vex’d the great warrier’s, and this made them begin the war.

We don’t know if this was on-message for the delegation — a glimpse of the iron fist that Nairne’s politesse was to glove — or delivered privately in Wright’s going campaign to undermine his opposite number. What we do know is that the Yamasees had seen both these men in authority over colonial-Indian trade over the past several years: on the night of April 14-15, they had to decide between mixed messages. Could they count on Nairne’s reassurances of comity? Or should they believe, as Wright intimated, the increasingly obnoxious inroads of traders presaged the outright destruction of their people?

April 15th was Good Friday. And the Europeans awoke to their Calvary.

The Yamasees’ decision about the intentions of their European counterparts was far from internally unanimous — but it was instantly effected.

“The next morning at dawn their terrible war-whoop was heard and a great multitude was seen whose faces and several other parts of their bodies were painted with red and black streaks, resembling devils come out of Hell,” a plantation owner later wrote to London. Most of the Europeans were killed on the spot, Wright apparently among them. A couple of them escaped.

And for Thomas Nairne, a stake in the center of the little village awaited, with an agonizing torture-execution said to have required three days before Nairne mercifully expired on April 17th.

The red indicates War, and the black represents the death without mercy which their enemies must expect.

They threw themselves first upon the Agents and on Mr. Wright, seized their houses and effects, fired on everybody without distinction, and put to death, with torture, in the most cruel manner in the world, those who escaped the fire of their weapons. Amongst those who were there, Captain Burage (who is now in this town, and from whom I derive what I have just said) escaped by swimming across a river; but he was wounded at the same time by two bullets, one of which pierced his neck and came out of his mouth, and the other pierced his back and is lodged in his chest, without touching a vital spot. …

Another Indian Trader (the only one who escaped out of a large number) saved his life by crawling into a marsh, where he kept himself hid near the town. He heard, during the whole day, an almost continual fire, and cries and grievous groans. He often raised his head in his hiding-place, and heard and saw unheard-of things done; for the Indians burned the men, and made them die in torture. They treated the women in the most shameful manner in the world. And when these poor wretches cried O Lord! O my God! they danced and repeated the same words mocking them. Modesty forbids me to tell you in what manner they treated the women: modesty demands that I should draw a veil over this subject.

This man who had witnessed so many cruelties, stripped himself naked so as completely to resemble the Indians; and in this state, made his escape by night, crossing the town without being perceived, he heard many people talking there, and saw several candles in each house; and having avoided the sentries, God granted that he should arrive here safe and sound.

Mr. Jean Wright, with whom I had struck up a close friendship, and Mr. Nairne have been overwhelmed in this disaster. I do not know if Mr. Wright was burnt piece-meal, or not: but it is said that the criminals loaded Mr. Nairne with a great number of pieces of wood, to which they set fire, and burnt him in this manner so that he suffered horrible torture, during several days, before he was allowed to die.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Businessmen,Cycle of Violence,England,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Public Executions,South Carolina,Summary Executions,Torture,USA,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

1793: Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande, governor of Saint-Domingue

Add comment April 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Philibert Francois Rouxel de Blanchelande was guillotined in Paris — victim of two revolutions an ocean apart.

Blanchelande (English Wikipedia entry | French) was a comfortable henchmen of the ancien regime, descended of a marshal.

At the outbreak of the French Revolution, Blanchelande was the governor of the Caribbean sugar colony of Saint-Domingue.

Like other New World colonies, Saint-Domingue’s brutal slave plantations generated vast wealth for the grand blancs, a tiny white oligopoly which was massively outnumbered by its black servile chattel. The demographics made for a perpetual source of conflict and danger — but that was the price of doing business for Europe’s sweet tooth.

The promised liberte, egalite, fraternite of 1789 fell into this tinderbox like a torch.

By 1791, slaves were in full rebellion. Mirabeau had once said that Saint-Domingue’s masters “slept at the foot of Vesuvius”; when it exploded, Blanchelande fell into the caldera with the grand blancs. The slave rebellion quickly overran the western third of Saint-Domingue — the germ of the imminent Republic of Haiti. But the situation on the ground in the early 1790s was extremely fluid, and perilous from the French perspective: Great Britain lurked at nearby Jamaica, scheming to swipe the lucrative island away from its rival amid the chaos. So here Britain accepted Saint-Domingue’s white refugees, and there she treated with black rebels to grant their emancipation in exchange for their allegiance.

The old royal hand Blanchelande was impotent to control the cataclysm with only a handful of troops, and he must have looked increasingly antiquated by the rapid progress of the Revolution too. A 1792 relief force of 6,000 soldiers arrived bearing word of the National Assembly’s too-little-too-late grant of political rights to free blacks, and bearing also Blanchelande’s replacement: a Girondin envoy named Leger-Felicite Sonthonax.

Both these steps were also swiftly overrun by the eruption. Blanchelande returned to Paris and was forgettably guillotined as a counterrevolutionary on April 15, 1793, not long after France and Britain officially went to war. “For losing Saint-Domingo,” Carlyle says a bit dismissively, and maybe that’s even right. But if so the loss reounded to the glory of the Jacobins. The Revolution’s ideals would soon come to mesh with the pragmatics of maintaining the allegiance of Saint-Domingue.

On February 4, 1794 — 16 Pluviose Year II, if you like the revolutionary calendar — the National Convention thrilled to “launch liberty into the colonies” (Danton) with a momentous proclamation abolishing slavery throughout the empire.

Slavery of the blacks is abolished in all the colonies … all men living in the colonies, without distinction of color, are French citizens and enjoy all the rights guaranteed by the constitution.


“Les Mortels sont égaux, ce n’est pas la naissance c’est la seule vertu qui fait la différence…” (Via).

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,Haiti,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , ,

1921: Mailo Segura, a Montenegrin in Alaska

1 comment April 15th, 2013 Meaghan

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

At noon on this day in 1921, Mailo Segura was hanged in Fairbanks, Alaska.

In 1918 he had murdered a miner, J.E. “George” Riley, near the gold rush town of Flat, in a dispute over money. His was the second execution in Fairbanks history.

George Riley was in charge of the mining operations along Orter Creek near Flat. Segura was a lumberjack and, together with some other men, had sold $300 worth of cordwood to Riley on credit.

In early 1918, Segura confronted Riley with the bill and demanded to be paid. By then, the bill had been outstanding for two years. Riley, however, refused to pay. He said he wasn’t going to hand over any money until Segura either brought his wood-chopping partners along with him to collect the sum in person, or brought a statement from his partners authorizing Segura to take the full amount.

As witnesses at his trial later testified, Segura was furious with Riley and said he would kill him if Riley didn’t give him the $300. On March 2, he withdrew his life savings of $1,800 from his bank account and later that day went looking for the deadbeat.

Segura found his quarry at the mining claim and waited patiently, assisting with the mining work so he wouldn’t look suspicious.

When all the other miners had gone inside the boiler house, Segura shot Riley in the back without warning. The miners heard the shots — there were three, any one of which would have been fatal — and ran outside to find their employer lying stone dead on the ground and Segura running away.

It didn’t take much effort to catch him. Once he was surrounded, Segura raised his hands in surrender and shouted, “Me no kill no more.”

Seeing as how Mailo Segura had repeatedly threatened Riley’s life and then shot the unarmed man from behind, his claim of self-defense didn’t go very far at his trial. He was convicted of first-degree murder on July 18 and was supposed to be hanged on October 8, but Segura put his $1,800 life savings to use filing appeals, and thereby prolonged his life by three years.

When his time came, he was terrified and unable to walk to his death. The authorities had to strap him to a board to keep him upright while they fastened the noose around his neck.

A matter of minor interest: Mailo Segura hailed from halfway around the world in the tiny Balkan kingdom of Montenegro; he might be the only Montenegrin ever executed in North America. (Montenegrins were then and still are today a sizable minority in Alaska.) In spite of his European descent, in trial documents he was referred to as “black,” and possible racial prejudice on the part of the jury was an issue in his appeals.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Alaska,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Pelf,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

Tags: , , , , ,

1905: Chief Zacharias Kukuri

1 comment April 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1905, in the midst of Germany’s genocidal destruction of the Herero people in its Southwest Africa colony (present-day Namibia), the Otjosazu chief Sacharias Kamaituara Kukuri was hanged in Windhoek.

More than half the Herero population perished following an abortive attempt to resist German colonization during this unfortunately little-remembered period, perhaps the very first of the 20th century’s ample store of genocides.

Our man’s execution occurred at the moment of a policy pivot: after the horrific extermination policy initially practiced by General Lothar von Trotha, Germany’s Herero policy was “moderating”. Von Trotha’s extermination order had been officially reversed by Berlin; by November of 1905, the murderous general would be recalled to Germany. Instead, they’d be collecting the Herero into concentration camps.

It was into the Windhoek camp that Kukuri arrived as the wounded prisoner of a German ambush.


The concentration camp under the walls of Windhoek’s Alte Feste (Old Fort). Today, the fort is a museum … and the camp, forgotten, is the grounds of a high school. (Source)

Of course, it goes without saying that, even if state policy no longer aimed officially at racial annihilation, the system of concentration camps continued the de facto genocide: the systematic destruction of Herero life in order to incorporate the population as a subject proletariat (enlightened self-interest — the colony’s “economic future would be completely destroyed by the extermination of the indispensable labor power” — is what finally trumped von Trotha). At the same time, camps structured a punitive neglect of Herero living conditions, a years-long “period of suffering” in which Herero died of overwork, malnutrition, disease and neglect as surety against any future resistance. Courts-martial of fighting-age men alleged to have had some hand in resisting by arms the German onslaught completed the salutary lesson.

Missionary sources provide us with eyewitness accounts of conditions in the camps. Missionaries stationed in the Herero Konzentrationslager reported to their superiors in Germany on the extensive and unchecked rape, beatings and execution of surrendered Herero by German soldiers. Missionary Kuhlmann spoke of the delight of settler women witnessing the drawn-out public hangings of captured Herero in Windhoek. At one such hanging, a drooling Herero fighting for his life was berated” ‘You swine, wipe your muzzle’. (pdf source)

Kukuri fell into this last category.

His fate is especially poignant for us (and, convenient to date) thanks to the memoirs of Friedrich Meier, one of the many German Christian missionaries who had poured into Namibia ever since it became a German colony. As Meier’s account of swapping Biblical allusions with Kukuri in the shadow of the latter’s gallows underscores, these missionaries had achieved some inroads.

I did not see the slightest trace of fear on him, instead it was as if he were going to a wedding. ‘Muhonge’, he said at one stage, ‘oami otja Elias mohamakuao na je otjinga me keende kejuru metemba,’ i.e. ‘Muhonge, like Elias, I too travel to heaven in a waggon.’

Having arrived at the execution site, I noticed how he kept looking at the gallows, at which preparations were still taking place. I feared for his tranquility and asked him to stop looking at it. ‘Muhonge,’ he said to me, ‘I hear everything, why should I not look at it? For is it not “my wood” [my cross]?’

When we finally stood underneath the gallows, we prayed together that beautiful song: ‘So then take my hand and lead me.’

German:

English:

Possibly he noticed that I was worried about him. Anyway when I was finished he said, ‘It would appear that you still fear that I am afraid, but have I not told you: “When a father calls his child, does that child then fear to go to him?” Give my wife, who is in Okahandja, my greetings and tell her that I have died in the faith of the lord Jesus, so too tell my children if you should ever see them.’ I asked him again to be infatuated with the lord Jesus. ‘Lord Jesus, you help me,’ with this, after he had given me his hand, he climbed up the ladder. Soon the noose was laid around his neck. And then — never will I forget that moment — the unheard-of happened, as he fell the noose slipped and the wretch fell to the ground. He lost consciousness for a moment, so too, the observers were dumbstruck. Today I still see how his eyes sought me out. Soon, however, two soldiers were there, they lifted him up, and then a little to the side, on orders of the major who led the proceedings, he was shot.

Kukuri’s grave can still be seen at the Gammans cemetery (German link) in Windhoek.

His memory as an emblem of Herero dignity under persecution also remains in present-day Namibia.

Anette Hoffmann (in “The Merits and Predicaments of Opacity: Poetic Strategies of Evasion and Resistance” for the fall 2007 Research in African Literatures) relates a later “praise poem” for 1959 Herero martyrs, whose allusion to the hanged chief (as “Hauzeo”) emphasizes his agency, rather than his victimhood.

For he as the son of the chief Kukuri and must die since Samuel Maherero had escaped to Botswana. They said that if they kill him, then that could serve as a symbol that they had exterminated the sovereignity of the Herero … he was taken to a tree near the White’s cemetery in Otjomuise, which is still here today. I can show you his grave. He is still there until now, near the railway line to Aris … when he was taken to the tree, the tree of Hauzeu, as you hear about it, it was said: now you will be hanged to die. Heavily wounded as he was, he had a rope around his neck and was hanged. However, his weight broke the rope. Then the Germans said he was innocent and had to be released. But he himself insisted to be hanged again … [he said] “I have come to see the children of Tjamuaha’s house, those left in the camps of enslavement: to see them with my own eyes … this is why I have come: take me up the tree.” They did and he died. He lies at Hauzeu’s tree. He had given himself to be hanged.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Namibia,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Wartime Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

2004: Benjamín Altamirano lynched

Add comment June 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 2004, Bolivian Aymara peasants burned to death the mayor of Ayo Ayo.

Disgruntled residents of his fiefdom had accused Benjamin Altamirano (who was also Aymara) of corruption, and received no redress. Likewise had Altamirano complained to the central government of growing threats against him without receiving protection.

The situation came to a shocking head when Altamirano was kidnapped from the capital city of La Paz the night of June 14 and driven overnight to his home in Ayo Ayo. There, according to wire reports,*

[o]fficials said he was then burned to death inside his house, with his body later dragged through the streets and dumped in the town square. Witnesses said he was tied up, set aflame in the town square and hung upside down from a lamppost.

The Andean Altiplano region to which Ayo Ayo belonged was at this time being riven by the Bolivian gas war, a social conflict that would ultimately force the resignation of neoliberal President Carlos Mesa and lead to the election of leftist** indigenous leader Evo Morales.

From 2003 to 2005, the region (on both sides of the Peru-Bolivia border) was paralyzed with repeated peasant protests and the community expulsion of disagreeable state authorities (other government officials fled Ayo Ayo after Altamirano died).

In the words of one unrepentant Aymara quoted in this Guardian piece,

‘We Aymara carry rebellion in our blood,’ said Ramón Coba, who heads the leading Ayo Ayo peasant organisation. ‘Bolivia is totally corrupt, not just the mayor. All of them should be finished in the same way, if not burnt then drowned or strangled or pulled apart by four tractors… It’s the only way they are going to learn.’

* This one ran in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on June 16, 2004.

** Morales, in 2009:

After more than 500 years, we, the Quechuas and Aymaras, are still the rightful owners of this land. We, the indigenous people, after 500 years of resistance, are retaking the power. This retaking of power is oriented towards the recovery of our own riches, our own natural resources such as the hydrocarbons. This affects the interests of the transnational corporations and the interests of the neoliberal system. Never the less, I am convinced that the power of the people is increasing and strengthening. This power is changing presidents, economic models and politics. We are convinced that capitalism is the enemy of the earth, of humanity and of culture.

Morales has floated elevating indigenous “communal justice” actions like Altamirano’s lynching into the stature of de jure law.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Bolivia,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Disfavored Minorities,History,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Summary Executions

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

1925: Fritz Haarmann, Hanover vampire

3 comments April 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1925, German serial killer Fritz Haarmann dropped his head in a basket in Hanover.

One of the most iconic and most terrifying among Weimar Germany’s ample crop of mass murderers, Haarmann is thought to have slain dozens of boys and young men from 1918 to 1924. (He was charged with 27 murders and convicted in 24 of them; Haarmann himself suggested the true number might be north of 50.)

Such gaudy statistics require teamwork.

This predatory pedophile partnered with one Hans Grans, a younger lover-slash-confederate; together they would lure fresh “game” (Haarmann’s word) for a meal and more.

Everyone dined well — Haarmann especially. Notorious as one of the most prolific “vampire” killers (the press also favored him with this moniker its its search for some epithet equal to the offenses; “werewolf” and “butcher” were also current), Haarmann liked to gnaw through his victims’ throats.

A chilling ditty paid tribute to the unsubstantiated rumor that Haarmann would even butcher the human flesh and sell it as “pork” on the black market. (He was known to trade in black-market meat.)

Just you wait ’til it’s your time,
Haarmann will come after you,
With his chopper, oh so fine,
He’ll make mincemeat out of you.

In the 1931 Fritz Lang classic M, for which Haarmann is one of several influences on the fictional serial killer at the center of the action, this rhyme appears with the name “Haarmann” replaced by “black man”.

Much deeper delves into the mind of this particular madman are to be had here, here and here.

And here:

That accomplice of his, Hans Grans, drew a death sentence too, but Haarmann somehow exculpated him successfully. Not only did Grans get out of prison, the once-notorious homosexual killer lived out the Nazi regime in Hanover un-tortured.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Infamous,Murder,Rape,Serial Killers,Sex

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , ,

1881: The assassins of Tsar Alexander II

8 comments April 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1881, five members of the Russian terrorist organization Narodnaya Volya were publicly hanged in St. Petersburg, where they had slain the tsar Alexander II a few weeks before.

“The People’s Will” etched in blood its place in the dangerous late 19th century ferment of Russian revolutionaries. In time they would read as the politically immature forerunners of the Bolsheviks, whose turn into terrorism was a political dead end.

But as of this date, they were at the top of their arc.

Every St. Petersburg tourist sees the place Alexander II died: the spot received a picturesque church that is now one of the city’s principal attractions.

On March 13, 1881, Narodnaya Volya assassinated the former tsar with a suicide bombing on the streets of St. Petersburg. With the death of the monarch who had emancipated the serfs, and was on the very day of his murder tinkering with plans to introduce an Assembly, liberalism arguably lost its weak purchase on Russia’s future.

The Nihilists** — who immediately sent an open letter to the new tsar demanding amnesty and a representative political body† — did not prevail in any direct sense.

Their dramatic gesture failed to ignite a social revolution or topple the autocracy, and they would find in Alexander III an implacable foe.

But while this spelled the end for the old man’s five assassins,‡ and even the end of Narodnaya Volya as an effective organization as the 1880’s unfolded, Alexander III’s efficacious repression was a Pyrrhic victory for the Romanov dynasty.

By depending on police operations rather than political reforms, Alexander III bequeathed his doomed successor a hopelessly backward political structure … and a considerably more dangerous revolutionary foe.


Refusal of Confession (Before Execution), by Ilya Repin, 1879-1885. (Via)

Alexander II’s death in the context of the times and its effect for Russia’s fate receive diverting treatment in a BBC In Our Times broadcast

* April 15 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was April 3.

** A quick summary of the strains of Russian revolutionary thought of the time here.

† Despite their dramatic tyrannicide, the Nihilists’ letter was angled for the consumption of mainstream post-Enlightenment Europeans. Karl Marx noted its “cunning moderation,” and its call for freedom and civil rights commonplace in more developed countries drew considerable support in the west. The Nihilists even took care to underscore their reasonableness a couple months later by condemning the senseless assassination of American President James Garfield. (See Inside Terrorist Organizations.)

Andrei Zhelyabov, Sophia Perovskaya, Nikolai Kibalchich, Nikolai Rysakov and — though he had backed out of the plot — Timofei Mikhailov, whose noose broke twice in the attempt to hang him. A sixth condemned assassin, Gesya Gelfman, escaped hanging due to pregnancy … but she and her child both died shortly after the birth.

Perovskaya gets adulatory treatment in this 1910 New York Times retrospective (pdf) on Russian political violence and repression.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Notable for their Victims,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Terrorists,Treason,Women

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,


Calendar

February 2017
M T W T F S S
« Jan    
 12345
6789101112
13141516171819
20212223242526
2728  

Archives

Categories

Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!


Recently Commented