1975: Nine Iranian communists

Add comment April 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1975,* Iran extrajudicially executed nine political prisoners.


This photo is a dramatic re-staging — evocative of a famous photo of executions in revolutionary Iran a few years later, or perhaps in the white-clad central prisoner’s raised arms, the Goya painting that forms this very blog‘s frontispiece. (Contrary to the reconstruction, the executioners had just one Uzi and took turns spraying it at their victims.) It’s part of a fascinating project by Azadeh Akhlaghi to portray 17 pivotal deaths in Iran’s history.
We took the prisoners to the high hills above Evin. They were blind-folded and their hands were tied. We got them off the minibus and had them sit on the ground. Then, [SAVAK agent Reza] Attarpour told them that, just as your friends have killed our comrades, we have decided to execute you — he was the brain behind those executions. Jazani and the others began protesting. I do not know whether it was Attarpour or Colonel Vaziri who first pulled out a machine gun and started shooting them. I do not remember whether I was the 4th or 5th person to whom they gave the machine gun. I had never done that before. At the end, Sa’di Jalil Esfahani [another SAVAK agent, known as Babak] shot them in their heads [to make sure that they were dead].

Account of a former Savak agent, Bahman Naderipour, who was executed after the Iranian Revolution. The New York Times report of Naderipour’s public trial has him recounting:

“We took them out of the jail and put them in a minibus and drove them to the hills. We had only one submachine gun, an Uzi, among us, so we took turns shooting them … we didn’t give them a chance to make a last declaration. We blindfolded them and handcuffed them and then shot them. I think was the fourth to shoot. We took the bodies back to the prison. and we had the newspapers print that they were killed during a jailbreak. We had the coroner confirm this version.”

The victims were Ahmad Jalil-Afshar, Mohammad Choupanzadeh, Bijan Jazani, Mash’oof (Saeed) Kalantari (Jazani’s maternal uncle), Aziz Sarmadi, Abbas Sourki, Hassan Zia Zarifi, Mostafa Javan Khoshdel and Kazem Zolanvar.\
The last two named were members of the People’s Mujahedin of Iran, the still-extant MEK back when it was still a standard Marxist revolutionary movement and not a cult.

The first seven named were members of the Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas, a proscribed Communist guerrilla organization.

One of those seven, Bijan Jazani, was a co-founder of that organ and one of the greatest Communist intellectuals Iran ever produced. (For a flavor of his thought kick back with the Jazani collection in Capitalism and Revolution in Iran.) With him was Hassan Zia-Zarifi, long a collaborator in leftist circles.

The proceedings that had landed them in prison in the first place had already put them in the global spotlight especially given the horrific torture applied to the defendants. (Among other things, these seven were adopted by Amnesty International as watchlist political prisoners.) International pressure had staved off juridical death sentences … so the matter was handled extra-juridically instead, with the standard insulting cover story, “shot trying to escape.”

Iran reaped a considerable diplomatic fallout from these murders. Its embassies around the world were rocked by protests of emigres and human rights campaigners in the ensuing weeks; that May, a team of communist assassins gunned down two American Air Force officers stationed in Tehran to train the Shah’s security forces — claiming responsibility “in retaliation for the murder of nine of our members.” (UPI dispatch from Boston (US) Globe, May 21, 1975)

There’s a lengthy lecture on Jazani et al by Communist historian Doug Greene.

* Some sources give April 19 instead. I have not been able to resolve the discrepancy to my satisfaction.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Intellectuals,Iran,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Summary Executions,Terrorists,Torture

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1818: Five from the Lancaster Assizes, “most dangerous to society”

Add comment April 18th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1818, four hanged at Lancaster Castle for uttering forged notes, along with a fifth hanged for burglary and horse theft — all casualties of the latest Lancaster Assizes. For the account, we excerpt Jackson’s Oxford Journal of May 9, 1818; the footnotes are from that source as well.

LANCASTER ASSIZES, April 13.

Address of Chief Baron Richards, on passing sentence of Death upon the prisoners capitally convicted of forgery, and of uttering forged Bank of England notes.

Wm. Oxenham*, convicted of uttering a forged Bill of Exchange, was first placed at the bar.

Chief Baron — “William Oxenham, you have been convicted of uttering a forged Bill of Exchange, well knowing at the time you uttered it that it was forged. The crime of which you have been convicted, on the most satisfactory evidence, by a most intelligent Jury, is a crime the most dangerous to society, and which loudly calls for the highest punishment the law can inflict; for no man, in a commercial country like this, can, by any care, effectually protect himself from such attempts. If there should be any disposition at the foot of the Throne to extend its mercy towards you, I shall rejoice: but of this I can offer no assurance; and if there should be any mitigation of your sentence, it will only be on condition of your being forever removed from this country.” — His Lordship then passed upon him the last sentence of the law in the usual terms.

The following prisoners were then placed at the bar: — Wm. Steward†, Thomas Curry†, Margaret M’Dowd†, R. Wardlaw†, R. Moss, Hannah Mayor, and J. Vaughan, convicted of uttering forged Bank of England notes; and G. Heskett†, convicted of burglary and horse-stealing.

The Chief Baron, addressing by name the first seven prisoners, thus proceeded, —

You have been severally convicted of uttering forged Bank of England notes, knowing them to be forged: the law has affixed to this crime the punishment of death, and it is an offence which, on account of its injurious consequences to society at large, requires the infliction of the highest punishment.

It is a practice which must be repressed; and if this cannot be effected by other means, it must be done by visiting it with the utmost severity of the law; for the negotiation of forged notes is the strongest and most extensive mode of plundering the public which can be resorted to, and it is one against which no care or prudence can be an effectual protection. I had, the last Assizes, the very melancholy duty, in this place, of passing the sentence I am now about to pass upon you, upon a number of persons convicted of this offence, and which sentence was carried into effect with respect to most of them: but I do not perceive that this sad example has been attended with any advantage, or that it has produced any diminution in the number of offenders of this description; you have not taken warning from it; for I observe that your offences are all subsequent to the last Assizes. It is, therefore, necessary that examples should still continue to be made; and it is my duty to tell you that some of you, nay, that most of you, beyond all question, must suffer the full sentence of the law.


* This prisoner was so unwell, that he was obliged to be supported into Court, and placed in a chair, until sentence was passed upon him.

† The prisoners thus marked were left for execution, and suffered the sentence of the law on Saturday se’nnight [i.e., Saturday, 18 April 1818], at Lancaster.

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

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1820: William Piper, drunken matricide

Add comment April 18th, 2017 Headsman

From the Boston Daily Advertiser and Repertory, April 26, 1820:


GEORGETOWN, (Del.) April 18 — This day, the awful sentence of the law was executed on William Piper, for matricide.

The following particulars were taken down by a person present at the time:

Early in the day a crowd was collected at the prison and another at the gallows. At 12 o’clock the tolling of the bell at the court-house announced the arrival of the time when the prisoner was about to bid adieu to earthly things. The anxiety of the people became very great, thousands crowding around the place where the gallows stood, and others pressing to see the criminal leave the prison.

The bell tolled ten minutes, when the sheriff entered the jail with the rope: 25 minutes past 12, the criminal appeared, and was assisted into the cart, and standing up with a horrible, frightened countenance he uttered the broken sentence, “Oh, all these people!”

The cart-horse was soon led off by the deputy sheriff, the guard forming around the cart and marching with charged bayonets; at 32 minutes past 12, the criminal was halted under the pole on which he was soon to be suspended.

The Rev. John Rogers addressed the people, and warned them against drunkenness; the crime, he said, that caused the criminal to do the act that had brought him to the gallows.

The Throne of Grace was then addressed in a very appropriate prayer by Mr. Hudson; after which the criminal spoke a few minutes to the congregation, declaring a knowledge of his sins &c.

The sheriff drew the cap over his face, and fastening [sic] the rope to the hook in the pole; at 13 minutes past one, the cart was moved off, and the criminal left hanging! A horrid consequence of drunkenness! Much might be said of the very trifling impression that was made on the minds of some rum drinkers that were present.

It might be proper to state, that the fatal deed was perpetrated in a state of intoxication, and after some quarrelling between him and his mother, and a blow on the head from her which drew blood, and after she had pushed him down over a chair, and a scuffle on the floor between Piper and his sister, who attempted to tie him, and after the sister had first seized upon the stick with which the fatal blows were given.

The only witness present at the beginning, stated that Piper when intoxicated, often threatened to kill his mother, but when sober he was as good to her as ever a child was.

Suffice to say, that he persisted to the last in solemnly declaring that he never had any malice against his mother, and that he was not sensible of having killed her.

He was 45 years of age.

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1947: Jozef Tiso, collaborationist Slovakian President

Add comment April 18th, 2016 Headsman

The first and only president of Nazi Germany’s puppet Slovak state, Jozef Tiso, was hanged on this date in 1947 as a traitor.

A Catholic priest in the twilight years of Austria-Hungary, Tiso got in the ground floor on the growth industry of nationalism when that polity fell apart after World War I.

Declaring himself a Slovak, he became during the 1920s — the first years of Czechoslovakia — an increasingly prominent exponent of the right-wing Slovak People’s Party, which he represented in the Czechoslovakian parliament from 1925. By the time party founder Andrej Hlinka passed away in August 1938, Tiso was the natural heir — and right in time for the crisis of Czechoslovakia’s dismemberment on behalf of Sudetenland Germans.

Berlin’s policy, too, was for an independent Slovakia — in fact, more stridently than Tiso himself, who mapped as a moderate within his own party, more supportive of gradual methods than revolutionary ones. “A Czech state minus Slovakia is even more completely at our mercy,” Goering mused in October 1938. “Air base in Slovakia for operation against the East very important.”

In secret negotiations with Slovakian leaders during the autumn and winter of 1938-39, the Third Reich’s brass made clear that its intention to guarantee Slovakia’s independence was an offer that could not be refused. When Slovakian separatist movements triggered the Prague government’s military occupation of Slovakia on March 9, 1939, Tiso was summoned to Berlin where Hitler gave him an ultimatum on March 13:

The question was: Did Slovakia want to lead an independent existence or not? … It was a question not of days but of hours. If Slovakia wished to become independent [Hitler] would support and even guarantee it … (Shirer)

The next day, Tiso was back in Bratislava, reading the terms to the Slovak Diet — with the clear undertone that the deed would be accomplished by Wehrmacht boots if it were not done by parliamentary votes. Tiso became the Prime Minister of the First Slova Republic that very evening (he became President later in 1939), and soon implemented an enthusiastically rigorous anti-Semitic line. (Tiso had been on about the Jews right from the start of his public career in the early 1920s.)

Slovakia is not a populous country, so its deportations made only a modest contribution to the Holocaust in absolute numbers. But from a prewar census population of 88,951 Jews, some 70,000 were deported to German camps and over 90% of these died. Thousands of others fled Slovakia as refugees; today, Slovakia’s Jewish populace has all but disappeared.

Captured in Bavaria after the war, Tiso was extradited by the Americans back to Communist Czechoslovakia where a court condemned him for collaboration, judging that he had been “an initiator, and, when not an initiator, then an inciter of the most radical solution of the Jewish question.” He was hanged in his priestly garb three days after that verdict.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Religious Figures,Treason

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1945: Robert Limpert, Ansbach antifascist

2 comments April 18th, 2015 Headsman

The ferocious commitment of the Third Reich to fight to the last man even when World War II was long past hope of German victory provided the occasion (or the pretext) for many of that bloody conflict’s most poignant and pointless deaths.

In these execution-focused pages we have seen the death penalty meted out to ideological enemies whom the Nazis hastened to dispose of in their last hours; almost infinitely more numerous were everyday people who by Berlin’s Götterdämmerung were made so much meat for the ordnance of the advancing Allies.

On this date in 1945, Robert Limpert’s effort to avoid the latter fate for his native Ansbach caused him to suffer the pangs of an entirely gratuitous execution.

Only 19 years old, Limpert had been disqualified from even desperate war’s-end military conscription by a severe heart problem.

He had made little secret of his antiwar views in the earlier years of the war. Even so, it was a deep shock while he was studying at the University of Wurzburg to see that ancient city devastated by a March 16 bombing raid that claimed 5,000 lives and destroyed most of its historic center.

He wandered back to Ansbach horrified, and sure that this city ought not share Wurzburg’s ordeal.

By April 18, American troops were just a few kilometers from the town. Limpert had spent the night before surreptitiously distributing pamphlets calling for a bloodless surrender, as he had on several earlier days. (Sample rhetoric: “Death to the Nazi hangmen.”)

According to Stephen Fritz, who describes this story in detail in his Endkampf: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Death of the Third Reich, Ansbach was in a state of near-collapse that Wednesday. Party officials were discreetly discarding their soon-to-be-incriminating insignia, and crowds jostled each other to loot canned goods for the prospective months of want ahead.

Though the Ansbach populace was violently hostile to the idea of inviting bombardment by fighting the Americans, word was that the rigorous commandant, Col. Ernst Meyer, did indeed mean to do so. Trying to prevent a disaster from befalling his city, Limpert that morning cut the telephone wires from the Col. Meyer’s command post to the nearby troops at the front — an act observed and reported by two diligent Hitler Youth.

What followed was a cruel exertion of a military machine aggrieved by Limpert’s entirely well-founded lese-majeste. The cut wire didn’t matter at all because the command post had already been abandoned. But it was reported, and policemen and bureaucrats began mindlessly following procedures. “In the chaos, nothing would have been easier than to drop the matter quietly and let Limpert go,” Fritz observes.

Meyer was frenetically trying to organize defenses that did not want to be organized and by the time he caught wind of of the Limpert investigation he was fit to be tied.

“For me,” he said later, “there was no doubt that I had found the man who had already engaged in treason for the past eight days [pamphleting against the war] … While forward in the front lines … brave soldiers risked their lives to defend the homeland, a coward attacked them in the back. I now had to act. I said, ‘Gentlemen, we’ll now immediately form a court-martial …’ Silence everywhere. I had the impression of a certain helplessness.” (Fritz, again)

Meyer’s aides were reluctant to speak. It was obvious that the Americans would occupy Ansbach with hours, but also obvious that an insufficiency of zeal could have any one of them shot on the spot. One or two of them hesitatingly suggested further investigation — an overtly correct notion that would be tantamount to dropping the case under the circumstances.

Meyer brusquely announced, “I sentence Limpert to death by hanging; the sentence will be carried out immediately.” According to Zippold [a constable], Meyer also declared that the entire Limpert family would be executed, whereupon both policem[e]n rushed to their defense. Unwilling to press the issue, Meyer said curtly, “We don’t have any time, let’s get going.”

In NS-Offizier war ich nicht, Col. Meyer’s daughter, Ute Althaus, grapples with his perspective on Limpert’s hanging — which Meyer always felt was justified.

It was past 1 in the afternoon when Meyer stalked out to the entrance of the city hall to conduct the execution personally. While all of Ansbach, all of the western front, sabotaged his frenzied defense of the Reich, Meyer had this boy at his mercy. The colonel poured all of his rectitude and despair into taking away at least this one life.

Nevertheless, Meyer was not an executioner. Nothing was ready for his improvised hanging, and while the colonel tied up the nearest rope he could get someone to fetch him, Robert Limpert twisted away and escaped. He made it maybe 100 yards: no bystander dared to answer his pleas for help as he was tackled, kicked, and dragged back to his gallows.

The story has it that Meyer, after hanging Limpert twice — the noose broke the first time — pinned some of the treasonable pamphlets to the body, then immediately hopped on a bicycle and fled directly out of town. Maybe the folklore has become a bit exaggerated on that point … but he can’t have stayed much longer. The Americans were there by supper time to cut Robert Limpert’s body down.

Today, several plaques in Ansbach honor Limpert.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Botched Executions,Execution,Germany,Hanged,History,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1567: Wilhelm von Grumbach, Landfrieden-breaker

Add comment April 18th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1567, Wilhelm von Grumbach was dismembered along with two of his followers in the marketplace of Gotha.

Grumbach (English Wikipedia entry | German) was the cantankerous German instigator of the aptly-named Grumbachsche Handel, a messy clash of rights and prerogatives at the hinge of the old feudal order and centralized princely authority.

Grumbach was a knight who’s invariably described as an “adventurer”. As a young man he fought in the Peasants War, but as he headed into middle age he became your basic penniless minor nobleman chafing at the failures and obstructed opportunities life threw at him.

The thing he could not abide losing was the disappearing right of the nobility to enter into a feud or vendetta. This scans to the modern like rank anarchy, but feuds were part of the tapestry of medieval German society, long codified in law — an obvious descendant of clan and tribal obligations out of which the muddle of feudal vassalage had formed. “The passion for liberty and rights,” says this volume, “ran amok in Germany. Churchmen, princes, burghers, and peasants all wanted their independence and readily resorted to declarations of feud to secure and defend their rights.”

The standing right for miscellaneous minor lords to start miscellaneous private wars was quite naturally one that princes were ever keen to restrict. After centuries of two-steps-forward, one-step-back efforts to deal with the feud, the 1495 Imperial Diet formally codified a ban on feuding known as the Ewiger Landfriede, or “perpetual peace”. In Poli Sci 101 terms, this is the state finally monopolizing legitimate violence.

As with dueling, however, official proscription did not end the practice. It was, indeed, Grumbach’s defeat and execution that would eventually be remembered as the decisive nail in the coffin for knightly feuds.

And so in Franconia where we lay our scene will civil blood make civil hands unclean …

Grumbach’s liege was Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt, the Prince-Bishop of Wurzburg. (Still another confusing dimension of the political map, some princes of Germany’s many statelets were simultaneously ecclesiastical authorities. For purposes of this post, the “-Bishop” part doesn’t enter into it.)

Knights’ basic problem — the reason they were vulnerable to losing their wacky old-time rights — was poverty, and it was in money that Grumbach’s feud was rooted. Grumbach’s personal twist on this was being the sort of irascible coot who could carry a grudge so far as to get himself sawed into pieces over it.

Immediately upon assuming the Prince-Bishopric in 1544, Melchior Zobel von Giebelstadt forced Grumbach to return an unauthorized cash gift his predecessor had paid to the knight, and then stiffed said knight out of six villages whose revenues Grumbach sought by way of compensation.

He had to deal with Grumbach’s feud for the remainder of his term, which was also the remainder of his life … right up until Grumbach murdered him.

The disaffected knight hooked up with the margrave* Albert Alcibiades and started making a right mess in the middle of Europe with a 1552-54 mini-war. When Albert got thumped, Grumbach had to evacuate to France, and his holdings outside Wurzburg were plundered and/or destroyed by his foes.

So now the guy was even more aggrieved, and even more pfennigless.

He was downright vengeful about his feud at this point, although it’s noteworthy relative to that monopolization-of-violence trend that he was still the only one: in days of yore, intra-elite wars might have spawned multiple self-reproducing vendettas.

The grumpy Grumbach now gravitated to another patron,** the deposed elector of Saxony Johann Friedrich II — another dude who felt hard done by in the Holy Roman Empire.

Grumbach evened his score with Melchior von Zobel by having the Prince-Bishop killed in Wurzburg in April 1558. (In present-day Wurzburg, three Zobelsaulen markers commemorate the Prince-Bishop’s assassination, one on the very spot of the murder.)

But that still left the money, and we know Grumbach wasn’t the type to write off a debt. In 1563, he successfully invaded Wurzburg with 1,300 soldiers and at swordpoint forced from the city a concession restoring his property.

For Grumbach, it was to prove a Pyrrhic victory.

In principle, he had achieved a great vindication of the ancient right of the feud, and for the hard-pressed nobility against the realms’ many princes. If others of his station had rallied to that banner, what a whirlwind Germany would have reaped.

According to Hillay Zmora’s State and Nobility in Early Modern Germany: The Knightly Feud in Franconia, 1440-1567, however, Grumbach’s fellow-knights looked into this particular abyss and said “nein, danke.”

Grumbach was in fact hatching an extravagant scheme† to liberate the entire German nobility … from the yoke of the princes. It was a radical aristocratic utopia … nobles were not only to be protected by the [Holy Roman] emperor from the princes, but to help him subdue them once and for all and to establish an hereditary monarchy in Germany. But despite Grumbach’s best efforts to incite the Franconian nobility, they did not line up behind him. Guidied by the captain of the Franconian Circle (Kreis), Georg Ludwig von Seinsheim, who denounced Grumbach’s undertaking as ‘against God, law and the emperor’, they formally turned away from him in 1564. In the view of the majority of them, the Knighthood was to maintain its autonomy by respecting the equilibrium between emperor and princes, not by irresponsibly challenging the latter. And it was this view, reassuringly transmitted to the princes, which carried the day.

Grumbach was outlawed by the empire and in 1566-67 was overcome with his protector Johann Friedrich at Gotha. Both men spent he remainder of their lives as imperial prisoners, with the notable difference that Johann Friedrich had the pull to live out his natural ration of days while Grumbach went straight to the dungeon for torture and thence to the scaffold in the town that had lately been his last redoubt. There, Grumbach was ripped apart — his dying eyes beheld the executioner wrench the heart out of his very chest and taunt him: “Behold, Grumbach, thy false heart!” The late knight’s rotting quartered remains got nailed up around town to broadcast the unmistakable message:

The noble right to feud was dead.

* Hereditary military commander.

** Among their other capers, Grumbach and his patron Johann Friedrich conspired with Torben Oxe‘s nephew Peder Oxe to depose the Danish king Frederick II in favor of the king’s grand-niece, Christina. (Christina will be known to Tudor-philes as the young woman who scuttled Henry VIII’s post-Anne Boleyn suit with the sharp remark, “If I had two heads, one should be at the King of England’s disposal.”) Nothing came of the plot. (Source)

† Christian Wieland writes that Grumbach deployed — unsuccessfully but still impressively — a 16th century multimedia propaganda campaign to state his case to the “common nobleman”: woodblock-illustrated printed leaflets, songs valorizing the attack on Wurzburg (sample verse: “Violence may be averted by violence / According to natural law”).

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Germany,Gruesome Methods,History,Holy Roman Empire,Nobility,Notable for their Victims,Pelf,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Torture,Treason

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1912: Frederick Seddon, for love of money

2 comments April 18th, 2012 Headsman

A century ago today, a jittery Frederick Seddon hanged at Pentonville Prison for murder.

This was a sensational and utterly circumstantial case … although the laudatory London Times editorial of March 15, 1912 noted, “as Shakespeare has it, there are ‘strong circumstances which lead directly to the door of truth.'”

(This earnestly presented line might have been inserted by a subversive copywriter, since the Shakespeare character who spoke those words was the duplicitous Iago … in the scene where he misleads Othello into believing his wife unfaithful and sets in motion the play’s tragic outcome.)

Seddon, the district superintendent of the London and Manchester Insurance Company, wouldn’t have been the type to appreciate the irony. He was a prosperous little man who knew the value of a pound and not enough else.

A couple of years before, Seddon’s family had taken on as a boarder an eccentric, cheapskate spinster answering to the name of Eliza Barrow. Everyone got on famously and Barrow came to trust the discreet bourgeois’s financial advice — trusted it even enough to transfer to him thousands of pounds of assets in exchange for a three-quid-a-week lifetime annuity plus rent-free lodgings.*

Annuity Gratuity

Now, Jane Austen would have us believe that “people always live for ever when there is an annuity to be paid them,” but this was not at all the case with Miss Barrow: just a few months after emptying her coffers into Seddon’s, she took ill with stomach pain, refused to pony up for a hospital visit and made Mrs. Seddon nurse her,** and after two weeks’ misery finally died in her bed on September 14, 1911.

The doctor who had called on her a couple of times ruled her, sight-unseen, a casualty of a going diarrhea epidemic, and handed to Seddon a death certificate which conveniently enabled him to arrange her immediate funeral, on the cheap.

And that was that.

Only when Barrow’s relatives caught wind of her fate and came calling, there to get short shrift from the landlord along with news that all their prospective inheritance was now his, did the strange dead woman get on her way to becoming a household name. When the corpse was exhumed fully two months after burial, there was still enough arsenic in it to kill a person.

Odorless, colorless, and tasteless, with symptoms mimicking gastrointestinal disease in a time when cholera was frequent and autopsies were rare, arsenic got its reputation as “inheritance powder” from its supposed-but-difficult-to-prove widespread use in the 19th century to hasten inconvenient rivals and relations off this mortal coil.

The stuff was also pretty easily available, in products like flypaper. The Seddons had purchased some arsenical flypaper a few days before their lodger fell ill, and the inference is that they soaked it† (which you’re supposed to do) and then laced the resulting poison-laced water into Barrow’s victuals (which you’re not).


It’s her own fault she didn’t insist on Acme brand arsenic-free water. (cc) image from Carlton Browne.

Pomp & Circumstance

All this admittedly incriminating stuff hung together as a case on so much supposition: that Barrow died from arsenic, and that the otherwise un-homicidal Seddons had means, motive, and opportunity to kill her, did not quite add up to proof positive.

Of course, one of the many murderous virtues of arsenic was the ease with which one could administer it, suspicion-free. Very rarely did anyone glimpse the villain, eyebrows peaked and mustache a-twirl, theatrically tapping out drops from a skull-labeled vial: even with the forensic methods coming online, arsenic allegations were circumstantial as to who and how and why practically by definition.

Progress of the case that winter made headlines all over, the biggest thing to hit the bar since Dr. Crippen.

It also became a permanent entry in the lawyers’ primer on why not to let your client testify.

Both Frederick Seddon and his wife Margaret stood trial together, and the evidence against each was pretty much the same. But Margaret was a slam-dunk acquittal, and in fact the judge’s charge to the jury all but directed that result.

However, Frederick’s insistence on testifying to rebut some of the aspersions cast on him would backfire catastrophically. (At least, that was Seddon’s lawyer’s take.)

Seddon insisted on his innocence to the very last, and to read with that idea in mind the testimony he gave for himself, it rarely looks substantively damning. But Seddon’s carriage reputedly pulled together for the jury all the trial’s circumstantial bits, into a believable story of a mean and stone-hearted fellow fully capable of killing for lucre. His demeanor was calm to the point of coldness, his command of the finances in his life meanly obsessive, and he showed unnerving insensibility to human fellow-feeling with his late tenant (he started selling her jewelry the day after she died) or her bereaved (he made only a perfunctory effort to notify her family, and gave them little help when they did show up on the grounds that none was the legal next of kin).

“I am not so ready to think evil of people,” Frederick Seddon said ingenuously at one point when the topic was other people who might have been robbing Miss Barrows. It’s like it didn’t occur to him even while on trial for his life that anyone might think evil of him.

Take, for example, this response to the suggestion that he had stolen a couple hundred pounds sterling from the trunk in Eliza Barrow’s room immediately upon her death.

Your suggestion infers [sic! sort of!] that I am a greedy, inhuman monster, committing a vile crime, such as the prosecution suggests, and then bringing the dead woman’s money down and counting it in the presence of my assistants. The suggestion is scandalous. I would have had all day to count the money.

It has a sort of autistic genius, an absolute tone-deafness that would be impossible to place in a literary character’s mouth lest the scene collapse into slapstick. Jurors must have taken the bloodless insurance adjustor for an insect, and accordingly had not the least compunction about squashing him.

Here’s more Seddon testimony under cross-examination. Again, it’s not exactly self-incriminating, but sufficiently calculating and blase to give you the willies when juxtaposed with late events of his life.

The ATTORNEY-GENERAL proceeded to question Seddon on the subject of the annuity which he said he granted to Miss Barrow in consideration of the transfer to him of her leasehold property and India stock.

Had you ever done an annuity transaction before?

“Never in my life.”

This has turned out a remarkably lucky investment from a money point of view?

“Only from that point of view.”

According to what has happened, you paid out altogether £91 and the whole of the property fell to you — you had no longer any money to pay out? You had got the property on the condition that you were to pay out an annuity?

“Exactly, which I did.”

What I am putting to you is that when she died you no longer had to pay out money to her?

“Certainly not — that is the basis on which an annuity is granted.”

You were dealing with this woman, who was living in your house and who had no other advice, certainly as regards this matter?

“That is her fault. She was advised to have a solicitor. I bound myself by legal documents to pay her an annuity, and I carried out my obligations.”

Until September 14?

“During the whole course — as long as she lived.”

In reply to further questions, the prisoner said he only benefited to the extent of 28s. per week by not having to pay the annuity. Asked whether there would be any one else who would benefit by Miss Barrow’s death, he said he had never given that question any consideration. Asked whether he thought Miss Barrow was a person of ordinary mental capacity, he replied “Yes,” adding that he considered she was a very deep woman. As an insurance agent he from his observations considered that she was an indifferent life.

Did you form that opinion when you were negotiating with her for the annuity?

“I might have done. Her average expectation of life was only 21 years.”

Your view was that she would not live over that term, and according to your view she would live less?

“I did not expect her to live the average expectation of life — a woman in her indifferent state of health. She would not be a life that I would recommend any insurance company to accept.”

The jury only needed an hour to shorten Frederick Seddon’s life expectancy to the next few weeks.


Frederick Seddon receives his death sentence on March 15, 1912.

Yet even with the black cap on his head, the judge — a Freemason to whom fellow-initiate Seddon nakedly appealed in open court, “before the Great Architect of the Universe,” for remission of the penalty — couldn’t really articulate exactly what Seddon had been convicted for.

[E]ven if what you say is strictly correct, that there is no evidence that you were ever left at the material time alone in the room of the deceased person, there is still, in my opinion, ample evidence to show that you had the opportunity of putting poison into her food or into her medicine. You had a motive for this crime. That motive was the greed of gold. Whether it was that you wanted to put an end to the annuities or not, I know not — you only can know. Whether it was to get gold that was or was not, or that you thought was, in the cash-box, I do not know. But I think I do know this — that you wanted to make a great pecuniary profit by felonious means.

That’s been the verdict on Frederick Seddon ever since.

* As much as this reads like a transparent con, the modern reader probably won’t have to stretch very far to suppose why Eliza Barrow might have set more stock by a trusted neighbor with a bookkeeper’s heart than she would by dubious machinations of distant and unaccountable economic institutions. Heck, there’d only just been a bank run.

** Reported regimen: barley water and milk, beef juice, and soda water. Mmm-mmm.

† Trial testimony recounted at least one case where the landlords laid four pieces of flypaper into the soaking water. Since one was all that was needed, the presumptive purpose would be to strengthen the liquid’s concentration of poison.

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1860: General Jaime Ortega y Olleta, for a Carlist uprising

Add comment April 18th, 2010 Headsman

This date marks 150 years since the admittedly little distinguished execution of turncoat General Jaime Ortega y Olleta for attempting to aid a Carlist uprising in Spain.

Hoping to exploit the Spanish military’s preoccupation with a conflict in Morocco, the Carlist pretender Infante Carlos and his brother Don Fernando attempted to topple their cousin Queen Isabella II.

They landed at San Carlos de la Rapita (Spanish link) bound for death or glory … or maybe just an “absurd fiasco”.

Ortega (Spanish Wikipedia link), dignified in the Encyclopedia Britannica‘s estimation as a “featherheaded officer”, turned coat to support this ill-fated adventure. Alas for him, none of the men under his command did likewise, nor did the populace.

The rising (more Spanish) collapsed immediately; Ortega was captured, court-martialed on April 17, and shot the following morning. (The New York Times recounts the story of his last hours from the Barcelona papers here.)

General Featherhead was the only casualty.

The would-be monarchs for whom he threw away his life were spared at the price of renouncing their claims, which renunciation they then attempted to renounce once back in exile. For some reason, nobody took them seriously; they died under suspicious circumstances the following year. Their nephew would later lead the last (likewise unsuccessful, but at least less embarrassing) Carlist war in Spain.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain

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1859: Tantia Tope, Indian independence hero

2 comments April 18th, 2009 Headsman

This is the sesquecentennial of Tantia Topi’s hanging for what is sometimes called India’s First War of Independence.

Tantia Topi — there are many variations of the name — commanded Indian troops when a mutiny mushroomed into outright revolt.

Putatively in the service of a rebellious lord, Topi immediately established himself as the cause’s most capable commander. His forces bloodily seized Cawnpore (Kanpur) in a heady surprise victory during the conflict’s opening stages.

A British counterattack overturned that promising development. The Indian lord was captured, but “all the capacity for resistance that he ever displayed” had been supplied by Topi. Now, Topi found a more impressive liege in Rani Lakshmibai, and deployed his genius for soldiery in a fast-evolving war — harrying the occupiers in both conventional and (increasingly) guerrilla-style combat.

The rebels were outclassed; the time was not yet ripe — but Topi’s was the model of anticolonial guerrilla insurgency that would figure so prominently in the next century.

Topi’s exploits and elusiveness, maintaining his freedom in the field long after every other pillar of the uprising had collapsed, made him a domestic hero, and formed a continuing theme in the British press in 1858 and 1859. He was genuinely admired by his enemies as a soldier, however much his cause was abhorred. (The stiff-upper-lippers dinged him for inadequate personal courage, however.)

Topi was taken, at last, by betrayal, and dead at the order of a drumhead military court within days.

But the day after the London Times published its report of the popular hero’s hanging (“a great scramble was made by officers and others to get a lock of hair, &c”), it editorially eulogized* Topi with the gusto of victor catching, perhaps, the foreshadow of Indian resistance awaiting in generations still to come.

He raised armies as fast as we could disperse them, took up one position after another to our infinite annoyance, and led us a chace which, despite of unexampled efforts on the part of our soldiers, seemed to be really endless. Our troops pursued him without intermission, contrived more than once to surprise him, repeatedly captured his artillery and scattered his troops, but could never deprive him entirely of followers or guns. He seemed to summon forces from the earth as if by magic. As the pursuit grew hotter and hotter he mounted his men on ponies and camels, and marched, it is said, at the average rate of 60 miles a-day. Wherever we found him he had always cavalry and guns, and these he posted with remarkable skill.

Be it remembered that for half a century we had been training soldiers, and that in Bengal alone there were 150,000 natives under arms when this revolt broke out. Now, in all this enormous host there was not a single man who, when the bonds of allegiance and discipline were abruptly removed, displayed the intuitive capacities of a military commander. … The two years of the revolt, with all their opportunities, never produced one native General. … One man alone reproduced the old Indian character, and that man was TANTIA TOPEE — an obscure civilian, without place or power. He, by the light of nature alone, discerned the strong points of the rebels’ position and our own weak points. By the exercise of that faculty with which heroes are gifted he could always, even in his most desperate straits, draw followers to his standard. …

Nothing could more forcibly illustrate the reputation which this man had acquired than the fact that his fate has been attended with some regret … if he had not met his match in those opposed to him he might have founded a dynasty.

* May 21, 1859. Information moved a little slower.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,India,Martyrs,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Separatists,Soldiers,Treason

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