1919: Wesley Everest lynched during the Centralia Massacre

1 comment November 11th, 2019 Headsman

A century ago today, an Armistice Day parade turned the Pacific Northwest logging town of Centralia, Washington into a battlefield. By the time night fell on the Centralia Massacre* four American Legionnaires had been shot dead … and then the cover of darkness was used to revenge them with the lynching that evening of Wobbly labor agitator Wesley Everest.

Before Amazon and Starbucks and Microsoft and even before Boeing, the economic engine of early Washington state consisted of cutting down its mighty ancient trees.

The spruce and fir trees were torn from the verdant Northwest by rough men working dangerous jobs in brutally exploitive conditions. “Loggers dealt with adulterated food, fleas and other vermin in their overcrowded housing, straw for bedding, the smell of disgusting wet socks drying near the bunkhouse’s one heater, latrines located directly next to the dining hall so that they could smell feces when they sat down to eat, etc.,” writes labor historian Erik Loomis. “They were paid next to nothing for their work and frequently ripped off by a collusion of timber operators and employment agencies.”

Small wonder that this part of the world yielded ready soil for radical labor organizers. The syndicalist labor union Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, familiarly nicknamed “Wobblies”) made notable inroads there.


Section of the map of the Northern Pacific rail network (rail lines in red), circa 1900.

In the town of Centralia, inland and convenient to the continent-straddling Northern Pacific Railway which whisked away the produce of her logging camps, Wobblies’ presence dated back at least as far as 1914.

They’d been the locus of violence previous to the events in this post: in 1918, a Red Cross parade addled on wartime jingoism turned into the sack of the IWW’s union hall. Vowing that they’d not suffer invasion again the Wobblies armed themselves, and they were on guard for the large parade Centralia had scheduled for the first anniversary of the Great War’s end — suspiciously routed to pass right in front of the new IWW hall.

Every history of the Centralia Massacre says at this point that the facts are in dispute as to who started what on that day, but it can be fairly said that a deliberate provocation deliberately provoked and before you knew it war veterans of the then-newformed American Legion were storming the Wobblies, under gunfire.

Ere the hive of radicalism was overrun, three Legionnaires had been shot dead.

Meanwhile, fleeing via an adjacent alley as he reloaded his .44 pistol went one of the hall’s armed defenders, Wesley Everest. The enraged mob pursued him, and as the IWW’s (obviously partisan) official site observes, this fact likely saved other Wobblies in the hall from summary execution. Instead they were bundled into jail where they’d soon be joined by Mr. Everest.

Running pell-mell down the alley the mob gave a shout of exaltation as Everest slowed his pace and turned to face them. They stopped cold, however, as a number of quick shots rang out and bullets whistled and zipped around them. Everest turned in his tracks and was off again like a flash, reloading his pistol as he ran. The mob again resumed the pursuit. The logger ran through an open gateway, paused to turn and again fire at his pursuers; then he ran between two frame dwellings to the open street. When the mob again caught the trail they were evidently under the impression that the logger’s ammunition was exhausted. At all events they took up the chase with redoubled energy. Some men in the mob had rifles and now and then a pot-shot would be taken at the fleeing figure. The marksmanship of both sides seems to have been poor for no one appears to have been injured.

DALE HUBBARD

This kind of running fight was kept up until Everest reached the river. Having kept off his pursuers thus far the boy started boldly for the comparative security of the opposite shore, splashing the water violently as he waded out into the stream. The mob was getting closer all the time. Suddenly Everest seemed to change his mind and began to retrace his steps to the shore. Here he stood dripping wet in the tangled grasses to await the arrival of the mob bent on his destruction. Everest had lost his hat and his wet hair stuck to his forehead. His gun was now so hot he could hardly hold it and the last of his ammunition was in the magazine. Eye witnesses declare his face still wore a quizzical, half bantering smile when the mob overtook him. With the pistol held loosely in his rough hand Everest stood at bay, ready to make a last stand for his life. Seeing him thus, and no doubt thinking his last bullet had been expended, the mob made a rush for its quarry.

“Stand back!” he shouted. “If there are ‘bulls’ in the crowd, I’ll submit to arrest; otherwise lay off of me.”

No attention was paid to his words. Everest shot from the hip four times, — then his gun stalled. A group of soldiers started to run in his direction. Everest was tugging at the gun with both hands. Raising it suddenly he took careful aim and fired. All the soldiers but one wavered and stopped. Everest fired twice, both bullets taking effect. Two more shots were fired almost point blank before the logger dropped his assailant at his feet. Then he tossed away the empty gun and the mob surged upon him.

The legionaire who had been shot was Dale Hubbard, a nephew of F.B. Hubbard, the lumber baron. He was a strong, brave and misguided young man — worthy of a nobler death.

“LET’S FINISH THE JOB!”

Everest attempted a fight with his fists but was overpowered and severely beaten. A number of men clamoured for immediate lynching, but saner council prevailed for the time and he was dragged through the streets towards the city jail. When the mob was half a block from this place the “hot heads” made another attempt to cheat the state executioner. A wave of fury seemed here to sweep the crowd. Men fought with one another for a chance to strike, kick or spit in the face of their victim. It was an orgy of hatred and blood-lust. Everest’s arms were pinioned, blows, kicks and curses rained upon him from every side. One business man clawed strips of bleeding flesh from his face. A woman slapped his battered cheek with a well groomed hand. A soldier tried to lunge a hunting rifle at the helpless logger; the crowd was too thick. He bumped them aside with the butt of the gun to get room. Then he crashed the muzzle with full force into Everest’s mouth. Teeth were broken and blood flowed profusely.

A rope appeared from somewhere. “Let’s finish the job!” cried a voice. The rope was placed about the neck of the logger. “You haven’t got guts enough to lynch a man in the daytime,” was all he said.

At this juncture a woman brushed through the crowd and took the rope from Everest’s neck. Looking into the distorted faces of the mob she cried indignantly, “You are curs and cowards to treat a man like that!”

There may be human beings in Centralia after all.

Wesley Everest was taken to the city jail and thrown without ceremony upon the cement floor of the “bull pen.” In the surrounding cells were his comrades who had been arrested in the union hall. Here he lay in a wet heap, twitching with agony. A tiny bright stream of blood gathered at his side and trailed slowly along the floor. Only an occasional quivering moan escaped his torn lips as the hours slowly passed by.

Dead in the fray outside the union hall were three World War I soldiers: Arthur McElfresh, Ben Cassagranda, and Warren Grimm, the last of whom had the distinction of participating in the unsuccessful American invasion of Bolshevik Russia — plus Dale Hubbard, the man shot dead while attempting to apprehend Everest. All four were Legionnaires who have been honored as martyrs by that organ ever since.**

The IWW, conversely, says the same for Everest, for once night fell he was hauled from his cell and lynched to Mellen Street Bridge: “Hangman’s Bridge” as it was later known — although the present-day bridge dates only to 1958, replacing Everest’s gallows.

And even though anyone involved is long dead by now the affair has remained a charged topic for the hundred years from that day to this; a local newspaper marked the centennial by noting that memorial events by the respective factions’ descendants brought “confrontation even now, even about how to memorialize the dead and imprisoned.” (Although Everest was the only Wobbly lynched, a number of his comrades tossed into prison for years on trumped-up charges, prey to the Red Scare run amok in those years; even the union’s lawyer was prosecuted, albeit unsuccessfully. It goes without saying that nobody ever answered for the lynching.)

There has been for many decades a memorial in Centralia’s George Washington Park commemorating the dead Legionnaires; more recently, Centralia’s cityscape was also enhanced by a rival mural celebrating Everest.


“The Resurrection of Wesley Everest” by activist muralist Mike Alewitz (1997). (cc) image by Richard Colt.

* Also sometimes called the “Centralia Tragedy”. It’s not to be confused with the U.S. Civil War’s Centralia Massacre — which occurred in 1864 in a town of the same name in the bloody border state of Missouri. North America has numerous settlements called Centralia including several with no massacre at all, yet.

** Four Legionnaires plus Wesley Everest make five victims for Armistice Day. There’s a sixth man whose death can be attributed to the affair: a sheriff’s deputy who was mistakenly shot dead a couple of days later when he was unable to give the countersign to a paranoid posse.

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1941: Alexandru Bessarab, fascist artist

Add comment July 8th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1941, the fascist artist Alexandru Bassarab was killed in World War II — generally believed to be among captured Romanian prisoners of war summarily executed by Soviet troops.

A woodcut/linocut specialist — as evidenced by his gaunt self-portrait to the right — Bassarab was an early adherent of the Iron Guard and became one of its outstanding propagandists.

His very Deus Vult-vibing work Arhangel, for example, was used by the Guard as a banner at the 1940 state funeral it threw for far-right martyr Corneliu Codreanu. (The Iron Guard was shorthand nomenclature for an organ formally named the Legion of the Archangel Michael — and its members hence known as Legionnaires.)

But the Iron Guard’s moment at the political apex was a brief one, and when it was sidelined by a different right-wing strongman, Ian Antonescu, Bessarab found himself arrested and forced into a front-line army unit recapturing (appropriately) Bessarabia. He disappeared into presumed Soviet custody and execution near Tiganca, in present-day Moldova.

His work, including apolitical pieces, was taboo in postwar Communist Romania, but has enjoyed a bit of rediscovery since the end of the Cold War

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Feast Day of St. Erasmus (St. Elmo)

Add comment June 2nd, 2019 Headsman

June 2 is the feast date of early Christian martyr Saint Erasmus of Formia.

If a real historical figure, Erasmus of Formia was a martyr from the persecutions of Diocletian, but the most sure thing about him is that his legend has accumulated like barnacles a variety of “spurious” myth and folklore. It’s an agglomeration that reached a critical mass sufficient to elevate him to the ranks of the Fourteen Holy Helpers, medieval Christendom’s roster of popular big-time intercessors.

He was supposedly a Syrian who landed in Italy as a prelate; there’s a St. Erasmus of Antioch who might either be the same guy in his previous guise or a completely different fellow whose conflated feats explain how Erasmus (of Formia) was both a bishop and a hermit. Oddly enough the Roman Martyrology doesn’t even say that he was put to death for the faith, for Erasmus “was first scourged with leaded whips and then severely beaten with rods; he had also rosin, brimstone, lead, pitch, wax, and oil poured over him, without receiving any injury. Afterwards, under Maximian, he was again subjected to various most horrible tortures at Mola, but was still preserved from death by the power of God for the strengthening of others in the faith. Finally, celebrated for his sufferings, and called by God, he closed his life by a peaceful and holy end.”

Later legends do much him much better for drama and Executed Today eligibility, crediting him with a gory disemboweling death. It’s possible that this association proceeds from Erasmus’s official patronage of sailors: it is he who is the namesake of St. Elmo’s Fire, the electric blue light that gathers to a ship’s mast during a storm,* and his nautical portfolio made his iconographic device the windlass, a winch-and-rope crank that devotees have found suggestive (since so many saints are depicted carrying the instruments of their own martyrdoms) of a device for spooling a man’s intestines. Over time, execution by mechanical evisceration became by popular consensus the passion of Saint Elmo.

“This is one example,” writes Rosa Giorgi in Saints in Art “where imagery influenced hagiography.”


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Sebastiano Ricci (c. 1694-1697).


The Martyrdom of Saint Erasmus, by Nicolas Poussin (1628).


Central panel of a triptych of Saint Erasmus’s martyrdom by Dieric Bouts (before 1466).

For wincingly obvious reasons, he’s also the saint to call on for any variety of abdominal distress, from stomach and intestinal maladies to the pangs of birth.

* And also a Brat Pack film.

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1945: Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman

Add comment April 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1945, during the last weeks of World War II, Dutch print artist Hendrik Nicolaas Werkman was shot by the Gestapo in the forest near Bakkeveen for his resistance activities.

Werkman’s 1938 self-portrait (source)

Werkman English Wikipedia entry | Dutch) grew up and worked in the city of Groningen and participated in an artists’ collective there called De Ploeg (The Plough) but he was

Werkman ran printing and publishing shops in Groningen that commanded most of his attention; he traveled abroad only once, in 1929. Nevertheless, he experimented through the 1920s and 1930s with creative use, largely self-taught, of typography and printing (he tried his hand at verse, too).

For a time he circulated his own English-titled magazine The Next Call, which he exchanged for work by other artists and designers to keep abreast of the era’s artistic ferment. He was noted for his druksels — “a word impossible to translate, a suffix joined to the word for typographic impression which adds to it a sense of modesty as well as affectionate irony. Perhaps it can best be rendered by ‘printlet’ rather than by ‘booklet’,” in the words of this British Library explainer.

These druksels could be quite independent of any text, or they could complement and enrich words to which they related. The technique used to make them — by means of letter types or other pieces from the type case stamped on to the paper by hand, of impressions of colour from stencils or their addition with the ink-roller held evenly or at varying angles — needed much time in preliminary design work, in proof impressions, and finally in the most careful and laborious execution. The most complex druksels might have needed up to fifty different handlings in and out of the press and allowed no more than one or at the most two or three copies to be made … they are considered works of art in their own right and have become very expensive collectors’ items.

With the German occupation, his became work and art in resistance. He rolled the presses for an underground publishing house called De Blauwe Schuit, but got arrested in a sweep of suspected subversives on March 13, 1945. Four weeks later, he was one of ten prisoners shot just three days ahead of Groningen’s liberation; “there had not even been a semblance of charges or trial,” continues the British Library bio, and “the pretence for his arrest had been the incomprehensible, decadent nature, as his captors saw it, of his art, his obvious Jewish sympathies and the suspected unauthorized use of paper.”


From left to right: Composition with letters ‘X’, Paul Robeson Sings, and one of his wartime renderings of various Hasidic Legends. Behold more works by Mr. Werkman at Wikimedia or Artnet. The best place to see his output in the flesh is surely Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, which acquired an ample Werkman collection in the late 1930s thanks to the fortuitous notice of its curator.

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304: Saint Eulalia

Add comment December 10th, 2018 Headsman

December 10 is the aptly wintry feast date of Saint Eulalia of Merida, a virginal girl of age 12 to 14 who was martyred for the Christian faith under Diocletian‘s western empire wingman Maximian.

With the headstrong zeal of youth, Eulalia escaped from a pastoral refuge arranged by her mum and belligerently presented herself to the pagan authorities, daring them to martyr her. The pagans were game.

Because God abhors immodesty, He sent a timely snowfall to protect the martyr’s nudity from the prurient gaze of her killers, making Eulalia the informal patron saint of snow. (More officially, she’s a patron of runaways, as well as of Merida, Spain, where she died, and Oviedo, Spain, where her remains are enshrined in the cathedral.)

A hymn to St. Eulalia by the ancient poet Prudentius which greatly multiplied her fame in Christendom salutes her for “[making] her executioners tremble by her courage, suffering as though it were sweet to suffer.”

[She] stood before the tribunal, amidst the ensigns of the empire, the fearless Virgin.

“What madness is this,” she cried,

which makes you lose your unthinking souls? Wasting away your love in adoring these chiselled lumps of stone, whilst you deny God the Father of all? O wretched men! You are in search of the Christians: lo! I am one; I hate your worship of devils: I trample on your idols; and with heart and mouth I acknowledge but one God.

Isis, Apollo, Venus, all are nothing; Maximian, too, is nothing; they, because they are idols; he, because he worships idols; both are vain, both are nothing.

Maximian calls himself lord, and yet he makes himself a slave of stones, ready to give his very head to such gods. And why does he persecute them that have nobler hearts?

This good Emperor, this most upright Judge, feeds on the blood of the innocent. He gluts himself on the bodies of the saints, embowelling those temples of purity, and cruelly insulting their holy faith.

Do thy worst, thou cruel butcher; burn, cut, tear asunder these clay-made bodies. It is no hard thing to break a fragile vase like this. But all thy tortures cannot reach the soul.

At these words the Praetor, maddening with rage, cried out:

Away, Lictor, with this senseless prattler, and punish her in every way thou canst. Teach her that our country’s gods are gods, and that our sovereign’s words are not to be slighted.

Yet stay, rash girl! Would I could persuade thee to recall thy impious words before it is too late! Think on all the joys thou thus wilt obtain; think on that noble marriage which we will procure thee.

Thy family is in search of thee, and thy noble house weeps and grieves after thee, their tender floweret so near its prime, yet so resolved to wither.

What! are nuptials like these I offer not enough to move thee? Wilt thou send the grey hairs of thy parents into the tomb by thy rash disobedience? Tremble at least at all these fearful instruments of torture and death.

There is a sword which will sever thy head; there are wild beasts to tear thee to pieces; there are fires on which to burn thee, leaving to thy family but thy ashes to weep over.

And what do we ask of thee in order that thou mayest escape these tortures? Do, I beseech thee, Eulalia, touch but with the tip of thy finger these grains of salt and incense, and not a hair of thy head shall be hurt.

The Martyr answered him not: but full of indignation, spat in the tyrant’s face; then, with her foot, upsets idols, cakes, and incense.

Scarce had she done it, two executioners seize her: they tear her youthful breast, and, one on each side, cut off her innocent flesh even to the very ribs. Eulalia counts each gash, and says:

See, dear Jesus, they write thee on my flesh! Beautiful letters, that tell of thy victory! O, how I love to reac them! So, this red stream of my blood speaks thy holy name!

Saint Eulalia by John William Waterhouse (1885) is one of the most unique and outstanding exemplars of the Pre-Raphaelite style.

Thus sang the joyous and intrepid virgin; not a tear, not a moan. The sharp tortures reach not her soul. Her body is all stained with the fresh blood, and the warm stream trickles down the snow-white skin.

But this was not the end. It was not enough to plough and harrow up her flesh: it was time to burn: torches, then, are applied to her sides and breast.

Her beauteous locks dishevelled fell veiling her from worse than all their butchery, the stare of these wretches.

The crackling flame mounts to her face, and, running through her hair, surrounds and blazes over her head. The virgin, thirsting for death, opens her mouth and drinks it in.

Suddenly is seen a snow-white dove coming from the martyr’s mouth, and flying up to heaven. It was Eulalia’s spirit, spotless, eager, innocent.

Her soul is fled: her head droops, the fire dies out: her lifeless body sleeps in peace, while her glad spirit keeps feast in its ethereal home, and this sweet dove rests in the house of her most High God.

The executioners, too, see the dove issuing from the martyr’s mouth: astonished and trembling they flee from the spot. The lictor, too, is seized with fear and takes to flight.

‘Tis winter, and the snow in thick flakes falls on the forum, covering the tender corpse of Eulalia, which lay stiffening in the cold, with its fair pall of crystal.

Ye men that mourn at funerals, weeping and sobbing out your love for the dead, ye are not needed here: give place. God bids his elements, O Eulalia, do the honours of thy exequies.

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1293: Capocchio, Inferno-bound

Add comment August 15th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1293, the heretic and alchemist Capocchio was burned at the stake in Siena.

Little is known about about this man’s life, but thanks to his contemporary Dante we know a great deal about his afterlife. Capocchio appears among the “Falsifiers” or “Imposters” haunting the eighth circle of hell in Cantos XXIX and XXX of the Inferno.

We meet Capocchio butting into a conversation Dante is having with a different (also executed) shade — Capocchio crying out to support their mutual disdain for the “flighty” Sienese.

“But should you want to know who seconds you
Against the Sienese, direct your eyes to me
So that my face can give you a clear answer:
 
“See, I am the shade of Capocchio
Who falsified base metals through alchemy
And, if I read you rightly, you recall
 
“How fine an ape of nature I have been.”

This remark implies that Dante might have known Capocchio in life. Dante had a vivid destiny in mind for his maybe-acquaintance a few passages later, when

two shadows I saw, stripped and pallid,
Biting and running in the selfsame way
A hog behaves when let out of the sty.
 
One came straight at Capocchio and sank
His tusks into his scruff and, dragging him,
Scraped his stomach against the stony floor.
 
And the one left behind, the Aretine,
Shivering said, “That ghoul is Gianni Schicchi,
And he goes rabid, like that, mauling others.”

The attacker was another notorious imposter, with an artistic legacy of his own in the form of Puccini’s opera Gianni Schicchi … or both together on canvas via William-Adolphe Bouguereau.


Dante e Virgilio by William-Adolphe Bouguereau (1850) has the two named characters contemplating from the background as Gianni Schicchi takes a bite out of Capocchio.

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1533: The witch of Schiltach

Add comment April 21st, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1533, a German woman, nameless to posterity, was burnt as a witch in the town of Schiltach.


Engraving of Schiltach from 1643, a century after the events in this post. (From Wikimedia Commons)

Top: Der Teufel von Schiltach (1930), by Eduard Trautwein. Bottom: Der Teufel von schiltach (1926), by Karl Eyth

This Black Forest idyll had been ravaged by fire on Maundy Thursday, the 10th of April.

We have seen many times in these pages how frightful was the scourge of fire for early modern cities, and the haste by which it was liable to be attributed to a malevolent plot.

In this case, common superstition soon acclaimed the fire an arson by the hand of an unpopular former maid of Schiltach’s mayor, who had recently been dismissed under a cloud of suspected diabolism. (This summary in German of the German book Der Teufel von Schiltach delves into the particulars.)

One problem: upon her dismissal, she had returned to her native Oberndorf. Not being in Schiltach at all during the events in question seemed like a pretty good alibi.

But since witchery was contributing means and motive, why not opportunity as well? Everyone knew that witches could fly. She was proximate, if not spatially then conceptually, to a disaster, and this was reason enough.

The luckless woman was retrieved from Oberndorf to answer the tortures of her disgruntled ex-boss, and consigned to the stake … and, as the images accompanying this post will attest, to local legend.


1533 woodcut illustration (click for larger version with German narrative text) about the Schiltach witch. (From Wikimedia Commons)

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Feast Day of St. Dismas, the penitent thief

1 comment March 25th, 2018 Headsman

March 25* is the feast date (per the Roman tradition) of the penitent thief crucified alongside Jesus Christ.

“The Good Thief”, by Michelangelo Cerquozzi.

The Crucifixion — Christ flanked by the “bad thief” who taunts Him and the “good thief” who capes for the Messiah — is deeply planted in the western canon. All four of the Gospels refer to two thieves although it is not until Luke — chronologically the latest, and hence the most embroidered and least reliable, of the synoptic gospels — that these nameless extras are surfaced as contrasting archetypes of the damned and the saved.

And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom. And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise. (Luke 23:39-43)

This is as much as the New Testament has to offer on these characters, but the theme of the Savior’s redemption poured out to flesh-and-blood sinners at the hour of death had a powerful resonance for Christendom and would furnish a good thief cult down the centuries; topical for this site, said thief would headline countless execution sermons to the condemned. (Example) As Mitchell Merback puts it in The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe

For suffering patiently and obediently, for his literal realization of the ideal of imitatio Christi, he is rewarded with the crown of martyrdom. The spectacle of his death, his ‘immediate beatitude’, was therefore consummately edifying: a beautiful death, redeemed and redeeming, not despite but because of the abjection that accompanied it. To the philopassianic late Middle Ages he served as a powerful inspiration for penitents. One could only wish to die so thoroughly cleansed of sin as the man in the image.

We have already seen how a similar wish obtained, individually and collectively, in the theatre of public punishments. Confessed and penitent convicts became, in the eyes of the people, the living counterparts of the historical martyrs and, consequently, the objects of a quasi-cultic veneration … Like his condemned counterparts in the Middle Ages, then, the Good Thief’s worthiness for redemption resided in part in the purity of his self-examination, confession and repentance … [and] also sprang directly from his fleshly pains. As both spectacle and image, the demolished body of the Penitent Thief constituted a sign of this soul’s lightning progress through purgation and towards redemption. Within the purview of a Christian ‘piety of pain’, his torments were both abject and redemptive, fearful and enviable, unbearable and fascinating.

For the Bad Thief, who in stubborn blindness turns away from Christ and dies in despair, unregenerate and damned, this surplus of earthly pain is something else: a foretaste of eternal torments. The same violent death transforms one Thief into a likeness of the Crucified, and hence a figure worthy of compassion, admiration and veneration; the other is marked as an everyday scapegoat, worthy of mockery and scorn. Together, then, the two figures, though marginal in the Passion narrative, become central in the medieval economy of response: they become antithetical models for a culture tuned to pain’s instrumentality in the pursuit of redemption.

In the language of the canvas, Christ gestures at that redemption by inclining his head to the right, towards the Good Thief, and didactic works will sometimes add a cherub retrieving this dying penitent’s soul whilst some infernal monster snatches the nasty one.


“Crucifixion” by Vitale da Bologna, circa 1335.

Both thieves attained their legendary names later in antiquity from the Gospel of Nicodemus, Dismas, Dysmas or Demas (the good one) and Gestas or Gesmas (the other one).** Other apocraphal texts build these two out like spinoffs in a blockbuster franchise; The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea gives us one bloodthirsty murderer and one proto-social bandit with a heavy dollop of anti-Semitism:†

The first, Gestas, used to strip and murder wayfarers, hang up women by teh feet and cut off their breasts, drink the blood of babes: he knew not God nor obeyed any law, but was violent form the beginning.

The other, Demas, was a Galilean who kept an inn; he despoiled the rich but did good to the poor, even burying them, like Tobit. He had committed robberies on the Jews, for he stole (plundered) the law itself at Jerusalem, and stripped the daughter of Caiaphas, who was a priestess of the sanctuary, and he took away even the mystic deposit of Solomon which had been deposited in the (holy) place.

And in a credulity-straining prequel, the Gospel of the Infancy stages a scene where these same two guys (as Titus and Dumachus) mug the Holy Family on the latter’s flight to Egypt only for the Good Thief in a spasm of conscience to call off the attack. Baby Jesus rewards his clemency with the depressing prophesy that they’ll all be crucified together.

Present-day namesakes of the penitent thief include the Christian rock band Dizmas, and Bill and Ted’s hometown of San Dimas, California.

* It shares a calendar date with the Feast of the Annunciation, which is the date that an angel informed the Virgin Mary of her miraculous pregnancy. (March 25 = Christmas Day minus nine months.) Medieval belief cottoned to the symmetry of the divine conception and the passion of the cross falling on the same day.

** The understood arrangement is that Dismas was crucified on Christ’s privileged right side. However, Merback notes that like Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern these two halves of a whole are easily confused with one another, for “one of the surviving manuscripts containing the legend places Gestas on the right and Dysmas on the left; and several works discussed in these pages show the name ‘Gestas’ inscribed near the Thief on Christ’s right. Whether these are the outgrowths of a primitive literary tradition or the result of iconographic confusions or misappropriations is unclear.” As an example, in Conrad von Soest‘s Altarpiece from Bad Wildungen it appears that Dismas is the one bound for perdition:

† In The Story of Joseph of Arimathaea, damnation is explicitly framed as the fate of the Jews, with Christ assuring Dismas/Demas that “the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses shall be cast out into the outer darkness.”

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1525: Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2018 Headsman

Although the primary accounts — those by conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara* — did not explicitly record the date, February 28 is the traditionally recognized anniversary of the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc.

A monument to Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City. (Author’s photo; public domain)

Cuauhtemoc (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was enthroned early in 1521, in a Tenochtitlan already in the train of devastation brought by the Spanish, which had over the preceding months laid low the Emperor Moctezuma II (by violence) and his brother Cuitlahuac (by smallpox, a disease that halved the city’s population within a year).

He was about 23 or 24 years old, a nobleman who must have distinguished himself in war — “a handsome man, both as regards his countenance and his figure,” in Bernal Diaz’s estimation; “a valiant man and a good warrior” by Gomara’s account.

And it would fall to him to bear his proud kingdom’s ruin.

Having previously been welcomed to Tenochtitlan as guests, Cortes and the Spanish had fought their way out and now returned as besiegers, joined by most of the Aztecs’ resentful former subject kingdoms. They soon had Tenochtitlan in a stranglehold, undaunted by the frightening sacrifice of captured prisoners.

all in a moment the large drum of Huitzilopochtli again resounded from the summit of the temple, accompanied by all the hellish music of shell trumpets, horns, and other instruments. The sound was truly dismal and terrifying, but still more agonizing was all this to us when we looked up and beheld how the Mexicans were mercilessly sacrificing to their idols our unfortunate companions, who had been captured in Cortes’ flight across the opening.

We could plainly see the platform, with the chapel in which those cursed idols stood; how the Mexicans had adorned the heads of the Spaniards with feathers, and compelled their victims to dance round the god Huitzilopochtli; we saw how they stretched them out at full length on a large stone, ripped open their breasts with flint knives, tore out the palpitating heart, and offered it to their idols. Alas! we were forced to be spectators of all this, and how they then seized hold of the dead bodies by the legs and threw them headlong down the steps of the temple, at the bottom of which other executioners stood ready to receive them, who severed the arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, drew the skin off the faces, which were tanned with the beards still adhering to them, and produced as spectacles of mockery and derision at their feasts ; the legs, arms, and other parts of the body being cut up and devoured!

In this way the Mexicans served all the Spaniards they took prisoners; and the entrails alone were thrown to the tigers, lions, otters, and serpents, which were kept in cages. These abominable barbarities we were forced to witness with our own eyes from our very camp; and the reader may easily imagine our feelings, how excessively agonizing! the more so as we were so near our unfortunate companions without being able to assist them. Every one of us thanked God from the bottom of his soul for His great mercy in having rescued us from such a horrible death!

Bernal Diaz

Wracked by famine after Cortes successfully cut off its food and water, Tenochtitlan succumbed that August. (The conquistadors found they could barely endure the stench of countless rotting bodies as they took control of the famished city.) When captured, Cuauhtemoc implored Cortes through tears (again according to Bernal Diaz),

I have done what I was bound to do in the defence of my metropolis, and of my subjects. My resources have now become entirely exhausted. I have succumbed to superior power, and stand a prisoner before you. Now draw the dagger which hangs at your belt, and plunge it into my bosom.

There would be no bosom-daggering. Cortes had a much worse fate in mind.

He saluted Cuauhtemoc for his intrepidity in defense, vowing to maintain the latter as the ruler of Mexico … Cortes’s ruler, to ratify the dictates of the conquerors, beginning with commanding his remaining loyalists to surrender. Cuauhtemoc obeyed, with what posterity can only guess must have been fathomless shame and sorrow.

Upon humiliation, Cortes heaped physical torture when the invaders’ ransack of their captured city turned up far less lesser quantities of material loot than they had anticipated — torture which Cuauhtemoc and a cousin-king of a loyal Aztec ally both endured heroically without augmenting the Spanish bottom line. Bernal Diaz once again:

The next thing which Cortes did was to collect all the gold, silver, and jewels that had been found in Mexico, of which, however, there was very little; for Quauhtemoctzin, it was said, had ordered all the treasures to be thrown into the lake four days previous to his capture. A great quantity had likewise been purloined by the Tlascallans, Tezcucans, Huexotzincans, Cholullans, and other auxiliary troops which had assisted us in the siege, besides what had fallen into the hands of the troops on board the brigantines.

The crown officials were positive that Quauhtemoctzin had concealed the greater part, and asserted that Cortes was very pleased that the monarch refused to say a word where it was hidden; for he would then be able to get the whole treasure into his own possession.

The officers then proposed that Quauhtemoctzin and the king of Tlacupa, his most intimate friend and cousin, should be put to the torture, in order to extort from them a confession as to what had become of the treasures: but Cortes could not make up his mind to insult so great a monarch as Quauhtemoctzin, whose territory more than trebled that of Spain, and that for mere lust after gold. Moreover, the monarch’s household assured us they had given up all the gold they possessed to the officers of the crown, which, it was well known, amounted to 380,000 pesos, the whole of which had been melted into bars; and one thing is certain, that the emperor’s and Cortes’ fifths were deducted from that sum; but the conquistadores were not at all satisfied, and considered this sum much below the real amount, and several expressed their suspicion to Alderete, the royal treasurer, that Cortes’ only reason for not wishing to put the monarch to the torture was, that he might secretly take possession of all his riches. Cortes, not willing that such a suspicion should any longer he upon him, or that he should afterwards be called to an account on this score, at last consented that both should be put to the torture.


Detail view (click for the full image) of David Alfaro Siquieros‘s monumental 1950-51 mural, The Torment of Cuauhtemoc.

Boiling hot oil was then applied to their feet; upon which they confessed that, four days prior to Quauhtemoctzin’s capture, all the gold, with the cannon, crossbows, and muskets, which we had lost in the night of sorrows, when we retreated from Mexico, besides those which had been taken in Cortes’ last defeat on the causeway, had been thrown into the lake. A number of good swimmers were then sent to dive for the treasure in the spot they pointed out, but nothing was found. Yet there was some truth in the statement; for I was myself present when Quauhtemoctzin led us to a large and deep reservoir of water, built of stone, which lay near his palace. From this reservoir we fished up a sun of gold similar to the one sent us by Motecusuma, besides many jewels and other trinkets, though all of little value. The king of Tlacupa also informed us that he had hidden all manner of valuable things in some large houses, about twelve miles from Tlacupa, and he would accompany us there to point out the spot where he had buried them.

Alvarado was then despatched thither with six soldiers, among which number I also was; but when we arrived at the spot, this king assured us he had merely invented all this in the hopes that we would have killed him in a moment of anger at our disappointment.

(Diaz later added that “the suspicion was become pretty general that he [Cortes] had concealed the greater part of Quauhtemoctzin’s treasure,” and indeed some disgruntled companions — unsatisfied with the share they had been allotted for so magnificent a conquest — would come to lodge this charge against Cortes formally with Emperor Charles V.)

Cortes eventually brought both these hostages/puppet kings/torture victims along with him on a 1524-1525 expedition to Honduras, perhaps to deprive them of any opportunity to rebel in his absence.

On the evening of February 27, Cortes received a report or a rumor that the Indian kings had rebellion on their mind just the same. The timetable from this report to execution is uncertain from the records, but if it was not within 24 hours it cannot have been much longer. Diaz, a hostile-to-Cortes witness here whose narrative indicates his dismay at proceedings, describes it thus:

I have now to relate a circumstance of a very different nature, which occasioned much grief to us all. Quauhtemoctzin and other Mexican chiefs who accompanied our army had, it would appear, spoken among themselves, or secretly determined to put the whole of us to death, then march back to Mexico, and assemble the whole armed power of the country against the few remaining Spaniards, and raise an insurrection throughout the whole of New Spain. This circumstance was discovered to Cortes by two distinguished Mexican chiefs, one of whom was named Tapia, and the other Juan Velasquez. This latter personage had been Quauhtemoctzin’s captain-general during our war with Mexico, and his testimony was borne out by the investigation which Cortes made into the matter, and by the confession of several of the caziques themselves who were implicated in the conspiracy. These men fearlessly declared, that seeing how carelessly and dispiritedly we roamed about; that numbers of the men were ill from want of food; that four of our musicians, with the buffoon and five soldiers, had died of hunger; and that three other men had turned back, more willing to run the risk of reaching Mexico again than of moving forward, the thought struck them that they could not do better than fall suddenly upon us while we were crossing some river or marsh, particularly as they were upwards of 3000 in number, all armed with lances, and several of them with swords. Quauhtemoctzin did not hesitate to acknowledge that these men had spoken the truth, but added that the conspiracy did not emanate with him, and that he himself had never for a moment contemplated carrying it into effect, but had merely spoken about it with the other caziques. All the cazique of Tlacupa confessed was, his having declared to Quauhtemoctzin that it was better to die at once than daily to have death before their eyes on these fatiguing marches, and see their countrymen and relations perish with hunger.

These were sufficient proofs for Cortes, and without any further ceremony he sentenced Quauhtemoctzin and his cousin the king of Tlacupa to the gallows. Before, however, this sentence was executed, the Franciscan monks, with the assistance of Dona Marina, strove to comfort these unfortunate men, and commended their souls to God. When they were being led to the place of execution, Quauhtemoctzin turned to Cortes, and said: “Oh Malinche! I have for a long time perceived, from your false words, that you had destined me for such a death, because I did not lay violent hands on myself when you entered my city of Mexico! Why are you thus going to put me unjustly to death? God will one time ask this of you!”

The king of Tlacupa said, he could only rejoice in a death which he would be permitted to suffer with his monarch Quauhtemoctzin.

Previous to their being hung, both these unhappy caziques confessed to father Juan, who understood the Mexican language, and they begged of him to commend their souls to God. For Indians they were good Christians, and they died in the true faith, and fully believed in our holy religion.

The death of these two monarchs grieved me excessively, for I had known them in all their glory, and on our march they honoured me with their friendship, and showed me many little attentions; for instance, they would often order their servants to go in quest of fodder for my horse; besides which, they were innocent of the guilt imputed to them, and it was the opinion of all who accompanied this expedition that they were put to death unjustly.

But I will leave this miserable subject, and return to our march, on which we henceforth observed the utmost vigilance, for we greatly feared the Mexicans might rise up in arms against us, after they had thus beheld their monarch ignominiously hung by the neck from a tree. But hunger, fatigue, and sickness weighed heavier upon their minds than the misfortune of Quauhtemoctzin.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the “rebel” kings hanged from a tree.

Gomara and, of course, Cortes characterize the accusations against the Indian kings as true and the proceedings against them lawful. From the footnotes in this same Bernal Diaz volume, we have this from the later Jesuit historian and ethnographer Juan de Torquemada, who was fluent in Nahuatl:

I find it differently represented in a history written in the Mexican language, and which I believe to be perfectly correct. While Cortes (the Mexican author says) was quartered in a certain township, the Mexican chiefs one evening began to discourse among themselves about the recent hardships they had suffered, and Cohuanacotzin said to Quauhtemoctzin, to Tetlepanquetzaltzin, and to other distinguished Mexicans, ‘Thus you see, gentlemen, from kings we are become slaves, and we suffer ourselves to be led about by Cortes and this handful of Christians. If we were other people than we are, and would break through the promise we have made these Spaniards, we could play them a pretty trick here, and revenge ourselves upon them for all they have done to us, and the ill-treatment my cousin Quauhtemoctzin has suffered at their hands.’ To this the Mexican monarch replied, ‘I beg of you Cohuanacotzin to drop this subject, lest some one should overhear us, and imagine we were in earnest.’ It appears (continues Torquemada) that they were indeed overheard, for the whole of this discourse was reported to Cortes by a low-minded Mexican of the lower classes.

By law, Mexican flags fly at half-staff in his honor on February 28.

* These texts are cited throughout the post, but for ease of reference … Bernal Diaz: Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, vol. 1, vol. 2 | Gomara: The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India; now called New Spaine | Cortes: History of New Spain, which is a Spanish text as I could not locate an English translation. However, even the Anglophone is liable to appreciate (from p. 225) the illustrations of Indian material culture observed by the Spaniards.

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1794: Rosalie Filleul, painter

1 comment June 24th, 2017 Headsman

Pastel painter Rosalie Filleul (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed French) was guillotined on this date in 1794, during the Paris Terror.

The prodigy daughter of a Paris, young Rosalie Boquet — as she was born — exhibited several times in the 1770s when she was barely out of her teens.

Famous for her beauty as well as her brushstrokes, she married into a comfortable sinecure held by the Superintendant of the Chateau de la Muette. As this fine post by history writer Melanie Clegg describes, Filleul cultivated an Enlightenment artist’s friendships with both revolution (Benjamin Franklin, whose portrait she painted) and ancien regime (Marie Antoinette, who commissioned more canvasses — like this one, of children of the Comte d’Artois).


The baby of this eldest trio of kids of the future King Charles X has been sighted on this here blog for his 1820 exit at an assassin’s hands.

Moved like many whom the Revolution would come to devour by hope in its possibilities, she declined to flee France. She came within a month of surviving the crucible but her relationship with the beheaded king and queen played fatally against her in the end.

We catch a glimpse of this woman and her vanished possibilities through the memoirs of her fellow-artist contemporary Madame Lebrun:

drew from nature and from casts, often working by lamplight with Mlle. Boquet, with whom I was closely acquainted. I went to her house in the evenings; she lived in the Rue Saint Denis, where her father had a bric-à-brac shop. It was a long way off, since we lodged in the Rue de Cléry, opposite the Lubert mansion. My mother, therefore, insisted on my being escorted whenever I went. We likewise frequently repaired, Mlle. Boquet and I, to Briard’s, a painter, who lent us his etchings and his classical busts. Briard was but a moderate painter, although he did some ceilings of rather unusual conception. On the other hand, he could draw admirably, which was the reason why several young people went to him for lessons. His rooms were in the Louvre, and each of us brought her little dinner, carried in a basket by a nurse, in order that we might make a long day of it.

Mlle. Boquet was fifteen years old and I fourteen. We were rival beauties. I had changed completely and had become good looking. Her artistic abilities were considerable; as for mine, I made such speedy progress that I soon was talked about

On Sundays and saints’ days, after hearing high mass, my mother and my stepfather took me to the Palais Royal for a walk. The gardens were then far more spacious and beautiful than they are now, strangled and straightened by the houses enclosing them. There was a very broad and long avenue on the left arched by gigantic trees, which formed a vault impenetrable to the rays of the sun. There good society assembled in its best clothes. The opera house was hard by the palace. In summer the performance ended at half-past eight, and all elegant people left even before it was over, in order to ramble in the garden. It was the fashion for the women to wear huge nosegays, which, added to the perfumed powder sprinkled in everybody’s hair, really made the air one breathed quite fragrant. Later, yet still before the Revolution, I have known these assemblies to last until two in the morning. There was music by moonlight, out in the open; artists and amateurs sang songs; there was playing on the harp and the guitar; the celebrated Saint Georges often executed pieces on his violin. Crowds flocked to the spot.

We never entered this avenue, Mlle. Boquet and I, without attracting lively attention. We both were then between sixteen and seventeen years old, Mlle. Boquet being a great beauty. At nineteen she was taken with the smallpox, which called forth such general interest that numbers from all classes of society made anxious inquiries, and a string of carriages was constantly drawn up outside her door.

She had a remarkable talent for painting, but she gave up the pursuit almost immediately after her marriage with M. Filleul, when the Queen made her Gatekeeper of the Castle of La Muette. [Marie Antoinette designated the position to Madame Filleul after her husband’s death. -ed.] Would that I could speak of the dear creature without calling her dreadful end to mind. Alas! how well I remember Mme. Filleul saying to me, on the eve of my departure from France, when I was to escape from the horrors I foresaw: “You are wrong to go. I intend to stay, because I believe in the happiness the Revolution is to bring us.” And that Revolution took her to the scaffold! Before she quitted La Muette the Terror had begun. Mme. Chalgrin, a daughter of Joseph Vernet, and Mme. Filleul’s bosom friend, came to the castle to celebrate her daughter’s wedding – quietly, as a matter of course. However, the next day the Jacobins none the less proceeded to arrest Mme. Filleul and Mme. Chalgrin, who, they said, had wasted the candles of the nation. A few days later they were both guillotined.

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