1489: Hans Waldmann, mayor of Zurich

Add comment April 6th, 2018 Headsman

An equestrian monument to Hans Waldmann at Zurich’s the Münsterhof plaza reminds of that onetime mayor’s beheading on this date in 1489.


(cc) image from Roland zh.

His city’s most outstanding personality of the age, Waldmann (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed German) sprang from merchant stock. He’d soared to the top in his Swiss city-state via his gift for military command, which stood Zurich in good stead during the Burgundian Wars.

Despite his war heroism, the peasantry of Zurich’s rural proximities soon grew to hate Waldmann as the spear tip of the urban oligarchy. Notoriously, he ordered the destruction of peasants’ dogs to preserve the hunting privilege for the powerful.

On the first of April, a revolt toppled Waldmann’s authority. He was arrested on a diverse slate of accusations including treason, peculation, and sexual corruption.

For the four days intervening, he endured “ceaseless torture, hanging, and stretching,” but the mayor retained enough vigor to walk “manly” and “proud” (in the words of a Bernese observer) to his scaffold.


Waldmann’s Farewell, by Johann Caspar Bosshardt (1847).

Detail view (click for the full-page illustration) of Hans Waldmann’s beheading, from the Lucerne Chronicle (1513).

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1724: Sister Geltruda and Fra Romualdo, at a Palermo auto de fe

1 comment April 6th, 2017 Henry Charles Lea

(Thanks to Henry Charles Lea for the guest post, which first appeared in his The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies: Sicily – Naples – Sardinia – Milan – The Canaries – Mexico – Peru – New Granada. The Inquisition was abolished in Sicily in 1782, but an interesting Palermo museum preserves its artifacts. -ed.)

When, in 1718, Savoy exchanged Sicily with Austria for Sardinia, the Emperor Charles VI would not endure this dependence of the [Inquisition] tribunal upon a foreign power and procured, in 1720, from Clement XI a brief transferring the supremacy to Vienna. In accordance, however, with the persistent Hapsburg claims on the crown of Spain, the Inquisition remained Spanish. A supreme council for it was created in Vienna, with Juan Navarro, Bishop of Albarracin as chief who, although resident there gratified himself with the title of Inquisidor-general de Espana, but in 1723 he was succeeded by Cardinal Emeric, Archbishop of Kolocz.

Apparently it was deemed necessary to justify this elaborate machinery with a demonstration and, on April 6, 1724, an auto de fe was celebrated at Palermo with great splendor, the expenses being defrayed by the emperor.


Detail view (click for the full image) of a French print of the auto de fe.

Twenty-six delinquents were penanced, consisting as usual mostly of cases of blasphemy, bigamy and sorcery, but the spectacle would have been incomplete without concremation and two unfortunates, who had languished in prison since 1699, were brought out for that purpose. They were Geltruda, a beguine, and Fra Romualdo, a friar, accused of Quietism and Molinism, with the accompanying heresies of illuminism and impeccability. Their long imprisonment, with torture and ill-usage, seems to have turned their brains, and they had been condemned to relaxation as impenitent in 1705 and 1709, but the sentences had never been carried out and they were now brought from their dungeons and burnt alive.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an engraving, The Great Auto De Fe At Palermo Italy 6 April 1724

Less notable was an auto de fe of March 22, 1732, in which Antonio Canzoneri was burnt alive as a contumacious and relapsed heretic.

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1985: Major Zin Mo, failed assassin

Add comment April 6th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1985, North Korean Major Zin Mo was hanged in Buma’s Insein prison.

Eighteen months earlier nearly to the day, a huge bomb ripped apart Rangoon’s monumental mausoleum tribute to martyred founding hero Aung San.

The bomb was meant for visiting South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan,* who planned to lay a wreath at the site. But the infernal machine detonated too early, sparing its target — though 21 others lost their lives, 17 of them Korean, including Foreign Minister Lee Beom-seok.

The ensuing manhunt turned up three North Korean commandos, each of whom had been detailed short-fused grenades to commit spectacular suicide to evade capture.

Zin Kee-Chu started pulling stuff out of his bag. First a pile of money came out and while the policemen were temporarily distracted by the cash he then pulled out a hand grenade and detonated right there.

Their hand grenades had short 1 second fuses unlike our M-36 hand grenades with the longer 4 seconds fuses. So the explosion was immediate and some policemen and Captain Zin Kee-Chu himself were killed there. (Source)

But Major Zin Mo survived his explosives, albeit with devastating injuries, and fellow-captain Kang Min Chul lacked the fortitude to make the suicide attempt at all. Under none-too-gentle interrogation, Zin Mo kept his mouth shut and accepted his secret execution for the People’s Republic. Zin Kee-Chu didn’t have any better stomach to hang for his country than to blow himself up for it; he didn’t hang and lived out his life in Burmese captivity, having apparently cut a deal to tell all in exchange for his life.

There’s a phenomenal firsthand retrospective on these events, liberally illustrated, here, written by a present-day Burmese exile who was in Rangoon on the day the mausoleum was bombed.

* Chun was the guy who emerged in charge after Korea’s intelligence chief bizarrely assassinated President Park Chung-hee in 1979.

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1772: Mary Hilton

Add comment April 6th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1772, Mary Hilton was burned at the stake in Lancaster for “petty treason”: poisoning with arsenic her husband, John, a blacksmith.

She was drawn on a sledge to the execution site, hanged to death as a mercy, and her body burnt to ashes.

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1571: James Hamilton, Archbishop of St. Andrews and uncle of a crack shot

4 comments April 6th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1571, the Archbishop of St. Andrews hanged in his clerical vestments at the Mercat Cross in Stirling.

John Hamilton‘s fate was tied up in that of his Romish church during the strife-wearied years of Queen Mary. There was a sure reckoning for the Church due in those years, but whose?

After the transition in England from the Catholic Queen Mary to the Protestant Queen Elizabeth, an alliance of Protestant Scottish nobles moved to overthrow the authority Mary of Guise, the French Catholic who ruled Scotland as regent for her expatriate daughter Mary, Queen of Scots.

As she was pushed back, Mary of Guise called in French reinforcements, and the Protestant lords English reinforcements. But Mary of Guise dropped dead of dropsy in 1560 and put the Protestants in the driver’s seat, shattering Scotland’s centuries-long Auld Alliance with France.

Political maneuvering in Scotland over the next decade makes for a tangled skein with many unexpected accommodations and alliances. But the religious direction of the realm would be the knottiest thread of them all.

James Stuart, Earl of Moray, one of the most prominent Protestant lords, was the illegitimate half-brother of Mary, Queen of Scots — Mary of Guise’s very Catholic daughter, who soon returned to rule a native land she had not laid eyes upon since the age of five.* The practical Moray became at first the real power behind the throne of the teenage queen, but the two also increasingly maneuvered against one another for, among other things, the future of Scottish Christianity.

The prelate Hamilton naturally held for out to keep reforms within the pale of orthodoxy. He had printed a noteworthy “Hamilton’s catechism” of Catholic doctrine in the 1550s, in the vernacular for popular consumption.**

So as the Moray-Mary relationship went pear-shaped in the late 1560s and the country fell into civil war, Hamilton of course gravitated to the side of the Catholic queen. Mary by this time had been forced to abdicate the throne in favor of her son, James VI (eventually also James I of England). Moray was now “Regent Moray” and exercised power in the infant king’s name. He also drove Mary to England, and her eventual execution.

He certainly had no shortage of mortal enemies.

On January 23, 1570, from the window of a house Archbishop Hamilton owned with his brother in Linlithgow, their kinsman James Hamilton shot Regent Moray dead as he passed in a procession en route to a diplomatic rendezvous in Edinburgh.†


James Hamilton prepares to win your barstool bet by becoming the first firearm assassin in history on January 23, 1570. (via)

This appears to be the first assassination with firearm on record (beating William the Silent‘s murder by a good 14 years), and it would set an encouraging precedent for Team Assassin: the gunman sprang onto a ready-saddled horse and successfully escaped his pursuers by desperately daggering his own mount in the hindquarters to spur it to leap over a creek. James Hamilton took refuge with others of the Hamilton clan in the town of that name.

As his subsequent course suggests, James Hamilton was not a lone gunman: a number of family members knew of and aided his plot. (He had actually been stalking Moray over several cities on his travels, looking for the right opportunity.)

Through them, the killer escaped to France. His uncle the archbishop was not so fortunate.

John Hamilton fled to the refuge of Dumbarton Castle following the assassination, but this citadel loyal to Mary was taken by surprise at the start of April 1571 by a daring nighttime escalade. John Hamilton was captured there and hailed to Stirling, where he was put to immediate death without benefit of trial.

* It was a bit of a step down from the French court for Mary, who had briefly been Queen consort of France when her frail husband unexpectedly succeeded the throne following the death of Henri II in a joust.

** Also in the 1550s, Bishop Hamilton granted the townspeople of St Andrew perpetual access to its Old Course, the legendary birthplace of golf.

† Two other short-lived regents succeeded Regent Moray until in 1572 the post fell to the hands of James Douglas, Earl of Morton.

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1752: Mary Blandy, “forgiveness powder”

1 comment April 6th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1752, 32-year-old Mary Blandy was hanged for the murder of her father, Francis. He had died in agony on August 14 the previous year, having been sick for months.

That Mary had poisoned her father with arsenic was not in dispute; the evidence proved it and she admitted it herself, even before he died.

The question was as to her motive, and her intentions. Mary conceded she had caused Francis’s death, but denied having ever meant to harm him.

The events that lead to Francis Blandy’s demise at the age of 61 began in 1746. Mary was Francis’s beloved only child and an old maid by the standards of day. They lived in Henley-Upon-Thames, Oxfordshire, UK.

Although scarred from a bout with smallpox, she was well-educated, witty and intelligent, and advertised a dowry of £10,000. But she had never been able to find a suitor her father approved of, until Captain William Henry Cranstoun came along.

Cranstoun was several years older than Mary, short, ugly, a compulsive gambler and not terribly bright, but he was a member of the Scottish aristocracy, the younger son of an earl. When he proposed in 1747, both father and daughter happily said yes.

Unfortunately for the two lovers, Francis Blandy soon learned that Cranstoun was already encumbered with a wife and child back in Scotland. Cranstoun swore (falsely) that he was not legally married to the woman and she’d only ever been his mistress; smitten Mary believed him, but Francis didn’t take kindly to the deception and he showed his would-be son-in-law the door.

Cranstoun, however, was not going to let a £10,000 dowry slip through his fingers so easily.

While he tried (unsuccessfully) to annul his existing marriage, he remained in touch with Mary for years and told her about a special powder made by wise women in Scotland, which caused those who took it to forgive their enemies.

Mary was skeptical, but Cranstoun swore it really worked and said he’d taken it once himself and felt its effects. He obtained some of the powder and convinced Mary to start slipping it into her father’s food and tea, so his heart would soften and he would allow his daughter to marry the man she loved.

Such was Mary’s story, at any rate, and she stuck with it until her dying day.

She swore she did not realize the magic powder was toxic. Sure, Francis rapidly became sick with heartburn and stomach pains, but he had suffered these symptoms before. Then his condition worsened. He vomited constantly and all of his teeth fell out. Mary finally summoned a doctor.

By then it was too late, for both father and daughter. The family servants became suspicious after several of them got violently sick when they drank tea intended for Francis.

One of them noticed a white grainy substance in the bottom of a bowl of gruel Mary had fed her ailing father. The servants took the substance to Francis’s doctor, who determined it was arsenic. Around the same time, another servant saw Mary throw a bundle of Cranstoun’s letters into the fire. She also tried to burn a packet which the servant rescued from the flames; it contained white powder identical to the arsenic that was rapidly burning through the old man’s entrails from the inside out.

When he was informed his daughter had poisoned him and guessed why, Francis refused to be angry with her, saying, “Poor love-sick girl! What will a woman not do for the man she loves?”

As he lay in extremis, Mary rushed to his bedside and begged her father to forgive her. An indulgent parent to the very end (or perhaps the “forgiveness powder” really had worked), he blessed his wayward child and told her he would “pray to God to bless thee, and to amend thy life.” He blamed Cranstoun for everything.

A few days later he was dead.

Mary ran from the house after his death, pursued by an angry mob, and took refuge in the Little Angel Pub. Eventually she was persuaded to surrender herself to the authorities. On August 17, she was arrested.

When Francis’s estate was settled, its worth was determined to be only about £4,000. Cranstoun would have never gotten that £10,000 dowry: it didn’t exist.

James C. Whorton discusses her trial in his book The Arsenic Century: How Victorian Britain was Poisoned at Home, Work and Play:

‘A vast concourse of people’ gathered for the trial, including many students from the university (whom one prosecutor could not resist lecturing ‘See here the dreadful consequences of disobedience to a parent’). The proceedings lasted but a single day, albeit a long one, running from eight in the morning till nine at night. Conducting herself ‘with more than masculine firmness’, Mary continued to insist that she was the victim of a cruel deception (‘What women can withstand the arguments and persuasions men will make of us?’), but the jury would have none of it. Devoting only five minutes to deliberation, not even retiring from the courtroom, they pronounced the defendant guilty.

Just before her execution, Mary wrote out her side of the story, which can be read in full online. Whorton records her death:

The prisoner was hanged five weeks later, on 6 April 1752, still avowing her innocence: ‘May I not meet with eternal salvation,’ she declared from the scaffold, ‘nor be acquitted by the almighty God, in whose awful presence I am instantly to appear,’ if guilty. Then, ‘without shedding one tear,’ Mary Blandy pulled her handkerchief over her face and dropped into eternity.

Her last words were, “For the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high.”

There was a lot of public sympathy for Mary, particularly after her execution, but none for Captain Cranstoun.

The Newgate Calendar called him a “profligate wretch” and “a disgrace to the noble blood from which he derived existence.” He escaped the grip of British justice by the skin of his teeth, going into hiding in the Continent when he found out about his fiancee’s arrest.

In the end, however, he got what was coming to him: nine months after Mary’s death, in Belgium, he was stricken by an unspecified intestinal ailment and met much the same end as Francis Blandy.

There was plenty of news coverage about Mary’s case, which had all the hallmarks of a morality play, and which was, in fact, made into one titled The Fair Parricide: A Tragedy in Three Acts. On top of this was the controversy over Mary’s intentions: was she was a conniving and ruthless little minx, a lovesick and pathetically naive girl, or something in between? The Newgate Calendar summed it up thusly:

With regard to Miss Blandy, the public have ever been divided in opinion on her case. Those who have presumed on her innocence have tacitly acknowledged that she was very weak, which contradicts the accounts we have of her genius and mental acquirements. On the contrary, those who have insisted on her guilt, have made no allowances for the weakness of the female mind; nor considered the influence of an artful man over the heart of a girl in love.

Her solemn declaration of her innocence would almost tempt one to think that she was innocent; for it is next to impossible to suppose that a woman of her sense and education would depart this life with a wilful lie in her mouth.

Be all this as it may, an obvious lesson is to be learnt from her fate. — Young ladies should be cautious of listening to the insidious address of artful love as they know not how soon, and how unsuspectedly, their hearts may be engaged to their own destruction, founded on the violation of all their nobler duties.

Mary Blandy was buried between her parents in the Henley Parish Church. There is no trace of her grave today, but her ghost is said to haunt the Little Angel Pub and also the site of her execution, which is the present-day Westford shopping center.

She would be remembered for hundreds of years after her death. Scottish lawyer and true crime writer William Roughead published an examination of her case, The Trial of Mary Blandy, in 1914; it is available free online here. Roughead concluded Mary had deliberately murdered her father. The case was made into a BBC miniseries, and in 1950, Joan Morgan published a novel based on the story, called The Hanging Wood, later retitled simply Mary Blandy.

Update: Because you can find anything on the Internet: the story of Mary Blandy in shadow puppetry.

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1857: Francis Richeux, witnessed by Tolstoy

Add comment April 6th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1857, a robber-murderer named Francis Richeux was publicly guillotined in Paris before a crowd of 12,000 to 15,000 people.

One of those onlookers was a 28-year-old Russian noble, fresh from the Crimean War and abroad on his first European trip: Leo Tolstoy.*

Overcome with curiosity, Tolstoy (as he recorded in his diary; here it is in Russian)

rose at seven o’clock and drove to see an execution. A stout, white, healthy neck and breast: he kissed the Gospels, and then — Death. How senseless … I have not received this strong impression for naught. I am not a man of politics. Morals and art I know, love, and [understand]. The guillotine long prevented my sleeping and obliged me to reflect.

And he developed the impression into a full-on rant that same day, in his running correspondence with Russian litterateur Vasily Botkin. The following is as translated in Dialogues with Dostoyevsky: The Overwhelming Questions.

The spectacle made such an impression on me that it will be long before I get over it. I have seen many horrors in war and in the Caucasus, but if a man were torn to pieces in my presence it would not have been so repulsive as this ingenious and elegant machine by means of which they killed a strong, hale, healthy man in an instant. There [in war] it is not a question of the rational [will], but the human feeling of passion, while here it is a question of calm and convenient murder finely worked out, and there’s nothing grand about it. The insolent, arrogant desire to carry out justice, the law of God. Justice, which is determined by lawyers every one of whom, basing himself on honor, religion, and truth, contradicts each other. With these same formalities they have murdered both the king and Chenier, both republicans and aristocrats.† . . Then the repulsive crowd, the father explaining to his daughter what a convenient and ingenious mechanism it is, and so forth. The law of man — rubbish! The truth is that the state is a conspiracy not only for exploitation, but chiefly to corrupt its citizens. But all the same states exist, and moreover in this imperfect form. And they cannot pass from this system into socialism . . . For my part, I can only see in all this repulsive lie what is loathsome, evil, and I do not want to, and cannot, sort out where there is more and where there is less. I understand moral laws, the laws of morality and religion, binding on no one, that lead people forward and promise a harmonious future; I feel the laws of art which always bring happiness; but the laws of politics constitute for me such an awful lie that I cannot see in them a better or worse. All this is what I felt, understood, and recognized today. And this recognition at least to some extent relieves the burden of the impression for me . . . From this day forward I will not only never go to see such a thing again, but I will never serve any government anywhere.**

He wasn’t kidding about that long insomnia, either: the impression startled him, permanently. Recalling the effect years later in his Confessions, Tolstoy still attributed to it an important confirmation of his egalitarian philosophy.

When I saw the head separate from the body, and how they both thumped into the box at the same moment, I understood, not with my mind but with my whole being, that no theory of the reasonableness of our present progress can justify this deed; and that though everybody from the creation of the world, on whatever theory, had held it to be necessary, I know it to be unnecessary and bad; and therefore the arbiter of what is good and evil is not what people say and do, and is not progress, but is my heart and I.

Tolstoy developed the same theme further a few years later in What Is to Be Done? … the shade of the long-forgotten Francis Richeux still haunting the great man of letters.

Thirty years ago in Paris I once saw how, in the presence of thousands of spectators, they cut a man’s head off with a guillotine. I knew that the man was a dreadful criminal; I knew all the arguments that have been written in defence of that kind of action, and I knew it was done deliberately and intentionally, but at the moment the head and body separated and fell into the box I gasped, and realized not with my mind nor with my heart but with my whole being, that all the arguments in defence of capital punishment are wicked nonsense, and that however many people may combine to commit murder — the worst of all crimes — and whatever they may call themselves, murder remains murder, and that this crime had been committed before my eyes, and I by my presence and nonintervention had approved and shared in it. In the same way now, at the sight of the hunger, cold, and degradation of thousands of people, I understood not with my mind or my heart but with my whole being; that the existence of tens of thousands of such people in Moscow — while I and thousands of others over-eat ourselves with beef-steaks and sturgeon and cover our horses and floors with cloth or carpets — no matter what all the learned men in the world may say about its necessity — is a crime, not committed once but constantly; and that I with my luxury not merely tolerate it but share in it. (PDF source | Original Russian)

* Among Tolstoy’s other activities in Paris was hanging around Turgenev … but the two mostly irritated one another. Nevertheless, they shared a distaste for the guillotine, at least to judge by Turgenev’s repulsion at seeing it in action years later.

** Two days after the execution, Tolstoy left Paris for Geneva. Execution-disgust is a suggestive speculation, although Henri Troyat argues that it merely gave him a “dramatic excuse” to stop putting off travel plans he had already made.

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1942: Janusz Korczak and his orphans

10 comments August 6th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On August 6, 1942, in the Warsaw Ghetto, Polish/Jewish hero Janusz Korczak marched with his orphans to the death trains and into legend.

The man, his activities in the ghetto, and above all his famed final walk to the Umschlagplatz, are mentioned in many books and memoirs about the ghetto.

The story of his final days also has been told many times in books for children such as The Champion of Children: The Story of Janusz Korczak, A Hero and the Holocaust: The Story of Janusz Korczak and his Children, and Janusz Korczak’s Children.

However, one of the former residents of his orphanage said, “I don’t want to talk about the dead Korczak, but the living one.”

The living Korczak’s story is told in Betty Lifton’s award-winning biography The King of Children: The Life and Death of Janusz Korczak.

Korczak’s real name was Henryk Goldschmidt. He took the name Janusz Korczak (pronounced “ya-nish kor-chok”) for his writing and it wound up taking over his entire life, a la Mark Twain.

Born in an observant Jewish household in Warsaw (which was then Russian Territory) in either 1878 or 1879,* he became man of the house after his father suffered a nervous breakdown in 1889 and eventually had to be hospitalized.

By thirteen, bored by school, he was writing poetry and learning foreign languages by himself. He went to medical school and served as a military doctor with the Russian Army in the Sino-Japanese War of 1905-1906. Eventually he was promoted to the rank of major.

Korczak’s true calling wasn’t in medicine, however, but in writing and in working with children. He found himself drawn to neglected and abused youngsters, and believed in treating every child with honesty and respect.

While he was in China with the military, his first book, Child of the Drawing Room, became famous in Poland. He didn’t realize he was a celebrity until he returned home.

He tried to distance himself from his writing and his fame and be an ordinary pediatrician, but people wanted to see him, to the extent that they would pretend their children were sick in order to entice him to their homes.

Korczak wrote later that one woman claimed her sons had the flu and, when he made a house call, insisted on serving him tea.

“Have you been writing anything lately?” she asked.

“Prescriptions,” he replied, and left, realizing he’d been had.

In 1910, he gave up his medical practice to start an orphanage for Jewish children age seven to fourteen. His institution was very different from most of that time and place, for Korczak had very democratic ideas: the children wrote their own newspaper and had their own parliament and court system.

If one child had a falling-out with another, the urchin could “sue” and bring a case to be decided before the orphanage court, which met once a week. (Even teachers and other staff members could be sued.) The orphanage court also held trials for children accused of violating one of the home’s rules.

Children were rewarded for good behavior, and spanked only as a last resort. Every child had a private, lockable drawer to hold their most precious belongings. Korczak carefully monitored the children’s health and also acted as a sort of informal therapist, encouraging them — most of them orphans from backgrounds of desperate poverty and abuse — to talk about their feelings. The children called him Pan (“Mister”) Doctor.

When World War I broke out, Korczak left the orphanage to serve in the Army again. He left it in good hands, however, in the care of teachers and staff he had trained himself.

“All the world is submerged in blood and fire, in tears and mourning,” he wrote sadly of his war experiences.

It was while in the trenches on the Eastern Front that he began writing a book on child development, titled For The Love of a Child. In 1918, the war finally ended, Poland became a free and independent nation, and Korczak returned to his orphans in Warsaw.

He stayed busy, setting up a second orphanage in 1919, and afterwards writing King Matt the First. The novel, a children’s story about a young boy who becomes king and puts the country’s children in charge, became a bestseller throughout the country in the wake of the calamity lately unleashed by the grown-ups. The sequel, King Matt on the Desert Island, was also a commercial success.

Korczak continued to work for his children, however; he consulted at Warsaw’s juvenile court, and in 1928 founded third orphanage, called Our Home, which had attached dormitories for teachers-in-training and was intended for Catholic children.

In 1925, Korczak wrote another book called When I Am Little Again, told from the point of view of a middle-aged teacher and meant to be read by both children and adults.

He started a children’s newspaper, the Little Review, in 1926. Saying he wanted to “defend children” in his new paper, he invited children from all over Poland to write and tell him the stories of their lives. The newspaper lasted until 1939.

He also hosted a hugely popular radio show, using the name “Old Doctor.” The program was terminated in 1937, however, after only a couple of years; Korczak’s employers with the radio station were reluctant to keep a Jew on the air. When his identity became known, the right-wing press castigated him, saying that as Jew he could never be a real Pole and shouldn’t be allowed to educate Polish children.

Like any public figure, Korczak had his critics. Anti-Semites called Our Home “a new nest of Masonry and potential Communism erected in the heart of the capital.” Communists said his institutions weren’t Communist enough; Zionists criticized him for not directing the children towards a life in Palestine; religious Jews said there wasn’t enough religion in the orphanages while assimilationist Jews said there was too much.

Yet Korczak’s methods worked.

In a follow-up study he conducted of all the former residents 21 years after the first of his institutions was opened, he found that only a few had turned to crime or prostitution as adults. The same could not be said for children who graduated from other children’s homes in Poland.

During the 1930s, many of Korczak’s friends encouraged him to move to Palestine to escape the growing problems in Poland. He actually visited a kibbutz there, but he couldn’t make up his mind whether or to go; he had trouble leaning Hebrew and wasn’t sure a man of his age could start a whole new life.

“I don’t have forty years to spend in the desert,” he wrote to a friend.

Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939 settled the question for him; leaving the country was no longer an option. Korczak volunteered for the Army again, but was turned down due to his age.

As the Nazis tightened their strangehold around Poland and Poland’s Jews, Korczak did the best he could to shied his orphans from the chaos, suffering and bigotry around them.

He turned his pen to appeals for funds for the children. As a protest against the occupation, he walked around the city openly in his old Polish Army uniform as well as the required Star of David armband.

The uniform proved surprisingly useful: he told a friend that when he went door to door asking for money for the children, “Some people are generous, but not everyone. If they’re difficult, I just undo my coat and reveal my Polish uniform. They get so nervous about having someone in uniform in their place that they give me something just to make me leave.”

The Warsaw Ghetto opened in 1940, and the orphanage was outside its boundaries, so they had to move. (Later, the Germans reduced the size of the ghetto, and Korczak’s orphanage had to relocate again.)

The Warsaw Ghetto was a kind of hell for Jews; allotted rations of only 800 calories a day — if they could get that — people died in droves of starvation and related diseases, including typhus and tuberculosis, as well as deliberate murder by the Nazis and their collaborators.

As recorded in Betty Lifton’s biography, a gentile friend, Igor Newerly, offered to help Korczak escape this fate:

“Everyone’s worried about your going into the ghetto with the children,” Newerly told him. “Just say the word and we’ll get you false identity papers to live on our side.”

“And the children?”

“We’ll try to hide as many as we can in monasteries and private homes.”

Korczak put down his cigarette, took off his glasses in their cheap round metal frames, and began wiping them with his handkerchief as he always did when he was stalling for time.

Finally, he asked: “Do you realize how difficult it would be to hide one hundred and seventy Jewish children — that’s that’s how many we have now.”

“We’d try,” Newerlv repeated.

“But can you guarantee me that every child will be safe?”

Newerly shook his head sadly: “I’m afraid that’s impossible. We can’t guarantee anything” — he
paused — “even for ourselves.”

Korczak thanked his friend, but turned him down. He would take his chances in the ghetto. His decision was sensible for the time — the “Final Solution” had not been conceived of, and no one knew what the eventual fate of the ghetto residents would be.

Lifton records:

On the day they were scheduled to depart, November 29, the children lined up in the courtyard as rehearsed, while Korczak made a final inspection of the wagons filled with the coal and potatoes that he had so arduously procured on his daily rounds. The children waved goodbye sadly to the Polish janitor, Piotr Zalewski, who was staying behind to care for the house. His face was swollen almost beyond recognition from the beating he had received the day before when he and the laundress had applied to the Nazi police for permission to go into the ghetto with the orphans. The Germans had thrown the laundress out, but detained Zalewski for questioning. Didn’t he know that Aryans were no longer allowed to work for Jews? When the janitor replied that after twenty years of service he considered the orphanage his home, the Germans thrashed him with whips and rifle butts.

[…]

The orphans tried to sing as they marched out of the courtyard and into the street, clutching their few possessions. The green flag of King Matt, with a Jewish star on one side, flew over the little parade as it made its way through the teeming streets the short distance to 33 Chlodna Street. When they reached the place where the wall cut along Chlodna, slicing its “Aryan” half off from the ghetto, they found German and Polish police at the gate demanding identification, as if they were crossing a foreign border.

Within the ghetto, Korczak continued his activities for children’s welfare.

He tirelessly solicited aid for the orphanage to keep the children clothed and fed. He and others held benefit concerts and poetry readings, and put posters all around the ghetto saying “OUR CHILDREN MUST LIVE” and “A CHILD IS THE HOLIEST OF BEINGS.”

He took the job as director of a hopelessly underfunded shelter that housed a thousand children; in spite of his efforts, the mortality rate there was sixty percent.

Everywhere children were dying of starvation and disease on the streets or in filthy, overcrowded hovels; Korczak lobbied for the creation of a sort of hospice where they could at least breathe their last in clean, quiet surroundings.

For himself he functioned mostly on pure willpower. It was hard for him to eat when he knew the children were hungry. Five shots of pure alcohol a day, mixed with water, provided precious calories.

Yet his health was failing. His friends noticed how emaciated he had become: “ill, wasted and stooped.” He had a persistent cough and a doctor who examined him diagnosed him with pulmonary edema. Nightmares interrupted his sleep. “How hard it is to live,” he wrote, “how easy to die!”

Yet he carried on.

In the summer of 1942, it became increasingly apparent that the ghetto would be liquidated. Igor Newerly approached Korczak again and offered to help save whoever he could.

Korczak declined his offer again, but gave him his diary for safekeeping — a sign that Korczak, too, knew the end was coming. He had decided to throw his lot in with the children.

In July, the Nazis announced that there were “too many Jews” and they were sending away the children, the old, the sick and anyone else who could not work. Orphans, of course, would be at the top of the list. Resettlement meant death, and many of the ghetto residents knew it, although a substantial number clung to the hope that they would be placed in work camps and find someway of surviving a little longer.

Adam Czerniaków, the Warsaw Ghetto Chairman and Korczak’s personal friend, took his own life rather than supervise the deportations.

For the next few weeks, people were marched or dragged to the death trains, packed inside and driven off to the Treblinka Extermination Camp for gassing.

Many people tried to hide, for the most part unsuccessfully, to escape being deported. Some of the ghetto residents were so hungry that they volunteered to go, because the Nazis promised bread and marmalade to anyone who reported of their own accord.

Korczak’s orphanage’s turn came on August 6. He and the staff had made up their minds earlier: all of them would go together. And they would go quietly, in an orderly fashion, so as not to frighten the children.

Their walk to the death trains, witnessed by thousands, has passed into Holocaust legend.

Lipton records:

The Germans had taken a roll call: one hundred and ninety-two children and ten adults. Korczak was at the head of this little army, the tattered remnants of the generations of moral soldiers he had raised in his children’s republic. He held five-year-old Romcia in one arm, and perhaps Szymonek Jakubowicz…

Stefa followed a little way back with the nine- to twelve year-olds. There were Giena, with sad, dark eyes like her mother’s; Eva Mandelblatt, whose brother had been in the orphanage before her. Halinka Pinchonson, who chose to go with Korczak rather than stay behind with her mother. There were Jakub, who wrote the poem about Moses; Leon with his polished box; Mietek with his dead brother’s prayer book; and Abus, who had stayed too long on the toilet.

There were Zygmus, Sami, Hanka, and Aronek, who had signed the petition to play in the church garden; Hella, who was always restless; big Hanna, who had asthma; and little Hanna with her pale, tubercular smile; Mendelek, who had the bad dream; and the agitated boy who had not wanted to leave his dying mother. There were Abrasha, who had played Amal, with his violin; Jerzyk, the fakir. Chaimek, the doctor; Adek, the lord mayor. , and the rest of the cast of The Post Office, all following their own Pan Doctor on their way to meet the Messiah King. One of the older boys carried the green flag of King Matt, the blue Star of David set against a field of white on one side. The older children took turns carrying the flag during the course of their two-mile walk…

The young protagonist of Jerry Spinelli’s novel Milkweed described it this way:

The orphans were going by. They were marching. Their heads were high and they were singing the song I had learned. I sang along with them. Not one was dressed in rags. Everyone wore shoes. Doctor Korczak lead the way…

“The very stones of the street,” wrote Yehoshue Perle, another chronicler, “wept at the sight of the procession.”

As the group waited for the trains to leave, Korczak’s many friends were seeking out anyone with influence, desperately trying to get them out of Umschlagplatz and back to the orphanage to die another day.

It was said that a German officer, who had been a fan Korczak’s King Matt books as a child, offered him the chance to leave — without the children. Korczak refused.

His presence kept the children calm; if he left them they might panic. He knew what was coming, and he knew he could not force the children to face death alone. The fact that he was in such poor health and probably would not have survived the war in any case does not make his sacrifice any less.

Eventually the orphans and the staff boarded the train and were hauled away. There were no survivors. His name is listed on a memorial stone at the site where Treblinka once stood — the only such stone with a name on it.

Korczak’s books were translated into many different languages, including English, and some are still in print: his children’s novel King Matt the First, which was a best-seller in Poland when it first came out; Loving Every Child: Wisdom for Parents; When I Am Little Again and The Child’s Right to Respect, two books in one; and his final piece of writing, his Ghetto Diary. The editor Sandra Josephs also put together the compilation of his works called A Voice for the Child: The Inspirational Words of Janusz Korczak.

Korczak’s legacy is not just in books; his name and image have been used in a lot of memorabilia over the years, and have appeared on stamps in Poland, Israel and Germany. In 1991, Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda made a film about Korczak and his last march. There are four statues of him in Warsaw, and a school for street children in Thailand is named after him.


From Andrzej Wajda’s Korczak.

* His year of birth is uncertain; Korczak himself may not have known it.

On this day..

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1945: Kim Malthe-Bruun, Yours, but not forever

11 comments April 6th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1945, Kim Malthe-Bruun was executed by firing squad in the Vestre Fængsel Prison in Copenhagen. His crime was being a member of the Danish Resistance Movement in German-occupied Denmark; he had stolen a customs boat and used it to smuggle arms from Sweden to Denmark to be used against the Nazis.

Kim was born in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1923, and moved to Denmark at the age of nine with his sister and mother. He quit school at seventeen to become a merchant seaman, then joined the Danish Resistance in 1944. Kim was arrested on December 19, 1944, held in various detention cells over the next few months, tortured, and condemned to die, along with three other members of his resistance group. Doubtless the Nazis were anxious to execute them all while they still could; Germany’s surrender was less than a month away.

In 1949, Kim’s mother, Vibeke Malthe-Bruun, published a collection of his letters and diary entries. The book, titled Kim, became a bestseller in Denmark and made Kim revered as a national hero. It was published in English in 1955, under the title Heroic Heart: the Diary and Letters of Kim Malthe-Bruun. Most of the sources about him are in Danish.

Kim’s writings reveal him to be a deeply sensitive and caring young man, wise beyond his years. On April 4, two days before his death, Kim wrote his last letter to his girlfriend, Hanne, urging her to go on with her life:

I don’t expect you to forget me. Why should you forget something so beautiful as that which existed between us? But you mustn’t become a slave to this memory … Don’t let it blind you and keep you from seeing all the wonderful things life has in store for you. Don’t be unhappy …

You will live on and you will have other beautiful adventures, but promise me — this you owe to everything I have lived for — that never will the thought of me come between you and life … Gradually as bigger and more important things appear, I shall glide into the background and be a tiny speck of the soil out of which your happiness and your development will keep on growing …

You see, Hanne, one day you will meet the man who will be your husband. The thought of me will flash through you, and you will perhaps deep down have a vague, uneasy feeling that you are betraying me or something in you which is pure and sacred. Lift up your head once more, Hanne, look straight into my eyes which are smiling at you and you will understand that the only way to betray me is by not completely following your natural instincts. When you see him, let your heart go out to meet him — not to drown your sorrow but because you truly love him.

He closed with:

Yours, but not forever.

The author Lois Lowry was inspired by Kim’s story and based a character on him in her book Number the Stars. The novel, which is about the rescue of the Danish Jews, won the 1990 Newberry Medal, one of the most prestigious awards in children’s literature.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Germany,Guerrillas,Guest Writers,History,Martyrs,Other Voices,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1199: Pierre Basile, marksman

3 comments April 6th, 2010 Jonathan Shipley

(Thanks to Jonathan Shipley of A Writer’s Desk for the guest post. -ed.)

If you kill a king, expect swift retribution.

Expect avengers.

Expect to not live long after you deal the final fatal blow to a royal personage.

A boy, Pierre Basile, was executed on this date in 1199 for shooting King Richard the Lionhearted* with an arrow expelled from his crossbow.

The wound wasn’t fatal to Richard I; the gangrene was. (French page) Although the king pardoned the boy for the shot before dying, Richard’s right hand man, French Provencal warrior Mercadier, would hear none of it. After the king’s death, Mercadier stormed Chateau de Chalus-Chabrol, defended weakly by Basile, then flayed him alive before hanging him.

Little is known of the boy defender. Also known as Bertran de Gurdun and John Sabroz (the various names suggest we’ll never know his real name), Basile was one of only two knights defending the castle against the king’s siege.

This castle protected the southern approach to Limoges and was betwixt routes from Paris and Spain and the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean. The English army openly mocked its defenses as the siege continued. The ramparts were cobbled together with makeshift armor. A shield was constructed out of a frying pan.

Knowing the castle would fall sooner than later, the English were lax in their siege, though eager for the riches inside. (Supposedly within the castle walls was a treasure trove of Roman gold.)

Richard I, as feudal overlord, claimed it for himself and no boy knights were going to get in his way. The king had been in the area suppressing a revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. The viscount’s forces had been decimated by the king’s army. The riches for the win lay in the castle and Basile stood atop it.

It was early evening, March 25, 1199, when Richard walked around the castle perimeter without his chainmail on. Arrows had been shot from the ramparts by Basile but were paid little attention. The king applauded when one arrow was aimed at him. The next arrow fired struck the king in the left shoulder near the neck.


Richard the Lionhearted, mortally wounded.

The king returned to the privacy of his tent to pull it out. He couldn’t. The surgeon Hoveden, Mercadier’s personal physician, was summoned. He removed the arrow, but not swiftly, or cleanly. Gangrene quickly set in. The king asked for the crossbowman. The boy, Basile, appeared before the stricken king, expecting to be executed on the spot. The boy spoke first, saying he had tried to kill Richard because the king had killed the boy’s father and two brothers.

“Live on,” the king replied, “and by my bounty behold the light of day.”

He ordered the boy set free and, further, sent him away with 100 shillings. Deliriously jubilant at the king’s decision, the boy quickly returned to the castle.

On April 6, in the arms of his mother, Richard I died. His remains were buried at the foot of the tower from which Basile shot the arrow.

And with the king died his chivalry towards Basile.

Mercadier, who had entered the king’s service in 1184 and fought in battles in Berry and Brittany, Flanders and Normandy, brought the castle’s defenders to a swift and punishing death.

Hanging the defenders, he took the boy and flayed him first — that is, he removed the boy’s skin while he was still alive. Then Pierre Basile was hung, and his body consigned in an unmarked grave.

* Last seen in these parts slaughtering Muslims on Crusade.

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Entry Filed under: 12th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Flayed,France,Gruesome Methods,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Known But To God,No Formal Charge,Notable for their Victims,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Pardons and Clemencies,Power,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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