1335: Prince Moriyoshi, imperial martyr

Add comment August 12th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1335,* imperial power in Japan received the executioner’s decisive verdict.

The three-year Kenmu Restoration (1333-1336) makes an interregnum sandwiched between two different eras of samurai-backed feudal shogunates, but if you were an heir to Japan’s ancient imperial house you might call the Kenmu era a plain-old regnum: the briefest of moments when the emperor actually exercised his purported authority.

It would not recur for another five centuries, during Japan’s 19th century Meiji Restoration.

Our older restoration saw Emperor Go-Daigo attempt to seize autocratic powers for his family, appointing his own sons successively as shogun. One of those sons was our date’s principal, Prince Moriyoshi (English Wikipedia entry | the more robust Japanese).

And one of those outside lords aggrieved at being cheated of the shogunate was Ashikaga Takauji, a samurai lord who would rebel against Go-Daigo. It says here that the subsequent period in Japanese historiography was the Ashikaga Shogunate, so that gives you an idea why you’re reading about Prince Moriyoshi on an execution blog. In the midst of his civil war, the upstart shogun-to-be captured Moriyoshi and sent him to a brother, who held the prince prisoner in a cave and had him beheaded at the provocation of some setback to the family cause.

Upon the re-establishment of the imperial house all those centuries later, the Meiji emperor had a Shinto shrine erected in veneration of this martyred ancestor at the place of his sufferings; the Kamakura-gu remains a popular pilgrimage and tourist site to this day.

* As best I can determine, August 12 is the consensus translation of the date from the Japanese lunisolar calendar; a date of “July 23” can also be found in some citations, which apparently reflects the 23rd day of the 7th month. However, the first day of the Japanese year occurred a few weeks after the Julian calendar’s January 1.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,Japan,No Formal Charge,Power,Royalty,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1875: Joseph Le Brun, the last public hanging in the U.K.

4 comments August 12th, 2018 Headsman

Joseph Le Brun starred in the U.K.’s last public execution in the U.K. on this date in 1875.

Although capital punishment had been moved behind prison walls in Great Britain several years earlier, the relevant statute did not apply to Crown dependencies like executions in the Channel Islands. And it is upon one of these rocks, Jersey to be precise, that Joseph Le Brun allegedly killed his sister. The names in this post are Gallic, as was much of the Channel Islands populace.

The milestone case was a strange and unsatisfying one. It entered the view of the judiciary on the evening of December 15, 1874, when a neighbor of Nancy’s reported to the police that Nancy had been murdered and her brother-in-law Philip Laurens wounded in a shooting. The unmarried Le Brun was a frequent dinner companion of this couple as he had been on this night as well, and there was no hatred known to exist among the trio. According to a True Crime Library summary, police

asked Laurens, who had face injuries and an arm wound, who had attacked him, and he replied: ‘My brother-in-law Joseph shot me.’ They found the body of Nancy covered in blood sitting on a sofa. There was a shawl covering her face and her stockinged feet were in a bucket of water.

They arrested Le Brun, who was in bed, and took him to the house where Laurens was awaiting a doctor. Laurens called Le Brun a ‘hangdog,’ and asked, ‘Why did you fire at me?’ Le Brun replied, ‘It wasn’t me.’

At the inquest on Nancy, Philip Laurens said that when he opened his front door on returning home Le Brun pointed a gun at him and shot him in the face. I said to him, ‘What have you done? You have shot me.’ He made no answer.

This evidence of Philip Laurens’s cinched the hemp for Joseph Le Brun. Certainly Philip did know his brother-in-law well. But on the other hand, well, the guy cracked open his front door, in the dark, and immediately got the business end of a rifle in his face. These are circumstances not conducive to the orderly cognitive processes that you’d prefer in a witness.

There was the suggestion that Le Brun might have contemplated such a crime to rob his sister of 28 quid she had recently come into; however, “there was no blood on his clothes, no powder on his hands, and only small change in his pockets” … besides which Nancy was a drunkard who could have been easily relieved of her windfall without the need for homicide. In fact, all three of the principals involved were known to get into their cups.

The crown prosecutor was openly discomfited by the prospect of executing Le Brun on this evidence and the jury likewise. It returned a guilty verdict for the non-fatal shooting of Laurens, but could not come to a unanimous decision about Nancy — the murder charge that would demand the prisoner’s hanging. It was only because Jersey permitted majority verdicts that Le Brun went to the scaffold after the court polled the 24-man panel. Even so, jurors joined the island’s public sentiment and wrote the Home Secretary begging in vain for a reprieve.

Le Brun too maintained his innocence all the way to the end. On the eve of his death, his brother-in-law paid a visit to the man his evidence had doomed, and their queer exchange only deepened the mystery.

Laurens: Joe, I’m sorry to see you here.

Le Brun: And you still wish to say that it was I who did it?

Laurens: Yes, I repeat, you murdered my wife, as you wished to murder me, and no one else but you did it.

Le Brun: You have proof of that?

Laurens: I did not come here to argue with you. I forgive you, but I say that you committed the crime. Adieu!

(Source)

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1896: Mirza Reza Kermani, assassin of the Shah

1 comment August 12th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1896,* Persian revolutionary Mirza Reza Kermani was hanged publicly for assassinating the Qajar Shah of Persia.

Shah since his gouty father kicked off in 1848, Naser al-Din Shah Qajar enjoys the distinction of being the third-longest ruler in the long history of Persian polities.

Only 64 years old at his death, Naser al-Din was young enough to have made a good run at the longevity runner-up 16th century Shah Tahmasp I;** however, his increasingly dogged resistance to reform and proclivity for gifting economic concessions to foreign firms bearing lucrative kickbacks eventually induced a young revolutinary named Mirza Reza Kermani to shoot Nasser al-Din dead at a shrine. It’s alleged that he had foregone a previous opportunity to murder the king in a public space frequented by Jews celebrating Passover, for fear that the regicide would be attributed to them and induce pogroms.

Naser al-Din’s sybaritic son Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar struggled equally to manage his restive subjects’ hunger for better statecraft, eventually (in 1906) leading to a constitutional era setting an a parliament at loggerheads with the Qajar princes.

* I’m attributing the date based on original reportage datelines in the Western press. There are some attributions to August 10 and to August 22 to be found.

** Number one is Shapur II, who was king for all of his 70 years in the fourth century.

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1944: Eliga Brinson and Willie Smith, American rapists abroad

Add comment August 11th, 2017 Headsman

Privates Eliga Brinson (of Tallahassee, Florida) and Willie Smith (of Birmingham, Alabama) were hanged on this date in 1944 at Shepton Mallet prison.

The two U.S. servicemen had ambushed and raped 16-year-old Dorothy Holmes in Gloucestershire that April. Tried and sentenced by the U.S. military, their hangings occurred over 100 years after Great Britain abolished the death penalty for rape.

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1806: Josiah Burnham, despite Daniel Webster’s defense

Add comment August 12th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1806, 63-year-old Josiah Burnham hanged for murder in New Hampshire.

Eight days before Christmas in 1805, Burnham, a noted local churl “almost constantly engaged in litigation,” was languishing as a debtor in the Haverhill jail when he got into an argument with two cellmates. Burnham being merely a debtor and not a real criminal was apparently suffered to carry his own knife in his confinement, and he used it to savage effect. According to a graphic news report, Burnham

inhumanly stabbed Freeman in the bowels, which immediately began to gush out. At the noise occasioned by this, Starkweather endeavored to come to the assistance of his friend Freeman, when, horrid to relate, Burnham made a pass at him and stabbed him in his side and then endeavored to cut his throat, and the knife entered in the his collar bone. Burnham after this made a fresh attack on Starkweather and stabbed him four times more. By this time he had grown so weak that the monster left him and flew at Freeman, who all this time was sitting holding his bowels in his hands, and stabbed him three times more.

By this time the jailers were upon them as Burnham attempted to slash his own throat. His victims lived a few more hours in agony before both expired.

The irascible bankrupt was easily convicted; his greenhorn attorney had scarcely anything to leverage in defense of a known blackguard committing such a cold-blooded crime.

“Burnham had no witnesses. He could not bring past good character to his aid, nor ould we urge the plea of insanity in his behalf,” Daniel Webster remembered in 1851, then with a lifetime in law and rhetoric behind him. “I made my first and the only solitary argument of my whole life against capital punishment, and the proper time for a lawyer to urge this defence is when he is young and has no matters of fact or law upon which he can found a better defence.” Despite the legendary talent of his tongue to acquit the damned themselves, Webster couldn’t save Josiah Burnham.

We have of this event a lengthy sermon preached by the Rev. David Sutherland

It’s available free online here, in a pamphlet which is also the source of the other quotes in this post. (It does, however, misdate the execution for August 13. Contemporary news reports both before and after the hanging are categorical that it occurred on Tuesday, August 12.) There is also a halting biography purporting to have been communicated by the doomed man himself:

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1895: Minnie Dean, the only woman hanged in New Zealand

Add comment August 12th, 2015 Headsman

On August 12, 1895, Willamina “Minnie” Dean became the only woman executed in New Zealand’s history.

An immigrant from Scotland, Dean married an innkeeper making bank in a gold rush boom town. If only the mines had not played out!

After they did, the Deans fell on hard times; Charles kept pigs instead of inns, and Minnie kept unwanted children. This “baby farming” industry carved out a curious niche in the Victorian heart of darkness — the domestic heart of darkness, not the colonial one.

Between the dearth of contraception and the stigma attached to unwed mothers, there was a ready market of unwilling parents hoping someone would whisk their little angels away. The “Winton baby-farmer” did just that — for a fee.

The question, then as now, is whether the many infants who died in Dean’s care perished because of calculated homicide, or because of the staggeringly high infant mortality rate of the era. Since baby farmers took one-time fees to take in children whom they would thereafter have to maintain, their incentives were to turn over the stock as quickly as possible — either by placing the child with an adoptive parent or … well …


This report (from the Aug. 14, 1895 Daily Telegraph) alludes to a fictitious lady-in-waiting of legend, whose shadowy inspiration in fact was a real-life Scottish expatriate beheaded for infanticide by Peter the Great.

Police surveilled and investigated Minnie Dean’s operation off and on for more than five years before her June 1895 capital trial: inquests after children’s deaths in 1889 and 1891 attributed them to natural causes but also noted deplorable sanitary conditions. Police found that she had attempted to take out life insurance policies on at least some of the kids.

Fearful of the attention (but still needing the income), Dean became more furtive, and this only made her look the more guilty. As greatly as the circumstances have changed, Dean’s case and others like it mirror the difficulty present-day judiciaries still have in drawing a bright line around childhood fatalities that can be convincingly attributed to abuse.

In the end it wasn’t the coroner who undid Dean, but an eagle-eyed railway attendant who noted the woman boarding a train with a baby and a hatbox … and later leaving the train with a hatbox but no baby. Now the investigation closed in on the Winton baby-farmer quickly: when Dean could not produce the infant granddaughter a woman claimed to have given up to her, police put a spade to her garden and turned up three corpses in the topsoil. The three-year-old boy had an undetermined cause of death, but the two infant girls had perished from suffocation and a laudanum overdose. One of them was the missing infant granddaughter. Murder charges ensued.

Her attorney was Alfred Charles Hanlon, who would go on to a brilliant career at the bar but was here defending his very first homicide — and was unable to interest the jury in an alternative configuration of the incriminating circumstances, namely that Dean had covered up accidental deaths fearing just that they would be taken for murders. (A 1985 TV series about this attorney, Hanlon, explored the case in its first episode, which can be seen online here.) Still less did that angle interest gawkers crowding the courtroom and the hustlers who sold them hatboxes carrying grotesque baby dolls.

Dean maintained her innocence on the scaffold (at least “as far as intention and forethought was concerned”)

As an appropriate postscript, a boy trying to eyeball the macabre proceedings from the roof of a building overlooking the gaol fell off of it, fracturing his skull.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Murder,New Zealand,Women

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1912: Sing Sing’s seven successive sparks

1 comment August 12th, 2014 Headsman

New York’s electric chair handled record traffic on this date in 1912: seven successive electrocutions.

The first two men committed unrelated and isolated crimes.

  • John Collins got drunk and started firing a pistol in his Manhattan apartment. Police responded, and Collins shot a patrolman through the chest when they entered his domicile and tried to arrest him.
  • Joseph Ferrone, a violent wife-murderer who reacted to his guilty verdict by smashing a glass and slashing a juror with the jagged edge before he was restrained.

The last five were the culmination of another record: six people (these were nos. two through six) executed for one homicide. More specifically, and this was their newspaper billing, “Six Italians”.

Ringleader Lorenzo Cali

Lorenzo Cali, Santo Zanza, Vincenzo Cona, Salvatore DeMarco, Angelo Giusto and Filippo DeMarco were all Sicilians who were among the million-plus emigres to leave the island in the wake of the devastating 1908 Messina earthquake, had washed up at Croton Lake outside of New York working on the aqueducts that supplied that swelling metropolis with its fresh water.

It was backbreaking work at less than $2 a day, with tent barracks for recuperation because it was a prohibitive two-hour train ride back to the last stop on the New York subway.

In 1911, Cali caught wind of the passing of a nearby farm owner — Henry J. Griffin, whose comfortable home (usually occupied by boarders from the aqueduct’s managerial ranks) must have looked a fair sight from the muddy workers’ tents. It was said that he had left his wife not only that property but a $3,000 insurance policy. That would be a good four times the average annual earnings of a workingman at the time: had that policy been cashed out, grabbing the proceeds would be a better day’s labor by far than tending the aqueduct.

On the night of November 8-9 of that year, our Six Italians — led by Cali, who had made a point of casing the house over the preceding weeks — stole by moonlight into the woods near the house and waited for the male residents to leave for the day. Once they did, the Italians raided the farm.

Though they easily overpowered the three women left there, they didn’t find any $3,000. One of the women, Mary Hall, the young wife of an aqueduct superintendent, lost her composure in the face of the bandits screaming at her to produce more money; desperate to control her sobbing and shrieking, Santo Zanza stabbed her fatally in the chest.

But as the men fled the house with pennies on their hoped-for fortune and a dying woman at their back, the other two matrons of the house summoned police — Aqueduct Police, actually, a special force detailed to keep order in the unruly laborers’ shanties. Four of the men were arrested in the vicinity that afternoon; Cali, the ringleader, made it back to his Brooklyn tenement but was caught there two days after the murder. Only Salvatore DeMarco, known to his confederates as “Penolo”, remained on the lam.

A speedy succession of four different trials (Filippo DeMarco and Cali opted to be tried together) commenced at the Westchester County courthouse in White Plains before the month was out. Heavy guard (“Black Hand” notes kept arriving at the judge’s door; for fear of a possible rescue attempt by underworld characters, Italians were barred from attending the trial) did not in the least encumber their rapidity.

Angelo Giusto had implicated Santo Zanza as the killer (“the confession was wrung from the prisoner by up-to-date third-degree methods,” a newspaper reported) and a cycle of desperately competing confessions and accusations ensued among the lot to easily doom them all. The general thrust of the non-Zanza defendants was that the whole thing was a robbery only, and that Zanza had gone rogue in knifing Mary Hall to death. Even if true, however, those statements amounted to confessing capital crimes under felony murder rules imputing to all participants in the criminal enterprise joint liability for all its consequences. There was one death by one man’s hand, but all six were murderers.

Twenty-six days after Mary Hall’s death, all five Italians stood together in the courtroom to receive their death sentences. The trials had taken just a few hours apiece; jury deliberations consumed less than a quarter-hour for all cases save that of the youngest, Giusto.


New York Times headlines from November 29 (left) and December 6 of 1911. “Less than thirty hours’ actual court time was used in the four trials,” the latter article reported by way of high-fiving the state’s attorneys. “It is believed that Westchester has established a new record for the quick disposal of murder cases in this State.”

Two days after that, the last fugitive Salvatore DeMarco was finally arrested at his East Flatbush apartment. He was tried, convicted, and condemned all in a single day on December 19.

As the short appeals process unfolded over the ensuing months, public pressure for mercy was exerted by the Italian consulate specifically on behalf of the men who had not bloodied their own hands. Even Santo Zanza, who was executed separately from the rest on July 12, climbed aboard, and gave statements designed to accentuate his own culpability and underscore his fellows’ innocence of his design. But considering the sensational nature of the crime, and its context of growing public fear of violent crime rife among New York’s Italian immigrants, this was not one to recommend itself to the governor‘s clemency.

There is a detailed Crime Library summation of this case that begins here; note that most of its navigation links insert a gratuitous (and link-breaking) space after the phrase /croton in the web address; clicking through the 15-page story requires some annoying manual url manipulation.

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1936: Manuel Goded Llopis

Add comment August 12th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Spanish Republic executed Gen. Manuel Goded Llopis, who mounted an unsuccessful nationalist attack in the heart of Republican Spain, Barcelona.

Goded (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was born of Catalan ancestry in Puerto Rico. His family moved back to the mother country when the United States stripped that territory away in the Spanish-American War.

Goded advanced rapidly through the armed forces, becoming dictator Miguel Primo de Rivera‘s chief of staff by 1927. He was dismissed from this post for intriguing against the government, but soon found his way back to command and became (Spanish link) one of the circle of officers conspiring to check the advance of the left.

When the anti-Republican military mounted the revolt that became the Spanish Civil War, Goded was in Catalonia — freshly arrived on a mission to snatch Barcelona for the fascists at the revolt’s outset. Forces loyal to the Republican government, however, defeated Goded in the streets of Barcelona on 19 July. The general himself was captured on 11 August. A Republican court had him shot at Montjuic the very next day, along with another officer, Alvaro Fernandez Burriel.

His defeat, in the long run, might have been a gift by the Republicans to their conquerors: Goded was a partner but also a rival of Francisco Franco’s, and Goded’s presence in the postwar settlement among the nationalist victors might have introduced a fault line into the Franco regime.

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1527: Jacques de Beaune, baron de Semblançay

1 comment August 12th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1527, Jacques de Beaune was hanged on the gallows of Montfaucon for peculation.

Beaune (French Wikipedia entry) was an aged man well into his 70s or 80s, and had served four kings’ treasuries, rising to become Superintendent of Finance for Francis I.

His slow-motion ruin began with France’s military involvement in Italy earlier that decade, in which capacity the French commander near Milan suffered a grievious reverse and had to abandon Lombardy.

Furious buck-passing ensued:

  • The commander blamed the defeat on a lack of pay for his Swiss mercenaries;
  • The paymaster — Beaune — blamed the lack of funds for the mercs on the Queen Mother, Louise of Savoy‘s calling in a debt

The ensuing investigation revealed this story to be true, but Beaune was obliged to retire from the court because of the Queen Mother’s fury at him.

And that might have been that, but for the further French misadventures in Italy.

In 1525, Francis himself contrived to be captured at the Battle of Pavia, elevating Louise of Savoy to regent in his absence. By the time the spendthrift king had been ransomed back, his treasury was nigh empty and Louise knew just the person to blame.

An audit of Semblancay’s accounts intended to turn up some loose ducats embarrassingly showed that the noble was actually a creditor of the king, but

on 13 January 1527, after Semblancay had returned to Paris on business, he was arrested and thrown in the Bastille … the king and his council … had been looking for ways of raising within five days 370,000 livres needed for the payment of troops. Semblancay was known to be a very rich man and the prospect of confiscating his property must have been tempting. (Source)

Semblancay was tried by a handpicked favorite of the court, with the predictable result on a somewhat nebulous embezzlement/corruption thing; a jailhouse snitch once in the great lord’s employ gave evidence against him. The doomed man, perhaps untroubled to be relieved of the infirmities of his advanced age, was supposed to have been downright chill walking through Paris to his death, and he was met with respect by a citizenry that could hardly help sympathizing with this wizened but serene victim of the royal wrath.

Poet Clement Marot** recorded the scene thus:

Lorsque Maillart, juge d’Enfer, menoit
À Monfaulcon Samblançay l’ame rendre,
À votre advis, lequel des deux tenoit
Meilleur maintien ? Pour le vous faire entendre,
Maillard sembloit homme qui mort va prendre
Et Samblançay fut si ferme vieillart
Que l’on cuydoit, pour vray, qu’il menast pendre
À Montfaulcon le lieutenant Maillart.
When Maillart, judge of Hell,
To Montfaucon led Samblançay to give up his soul,
Which of the two, in your mind,
Had the better demeanour? To enlighten you,
Maillart seemed the man whome death would take
And so sturdy an old man was Samblançay,
That one truly believed that it was he who led
Lieutenant Maillart to be hanged at Montaucon.

This case is less well-remembered today than it ought to be; to contemporaries, the hanging of France’s treasurer for corruption was an awfully noteworthy event.† (Opinions at the time seemed to be split on the justice of the matter, even though Semblancay was posthumously rehabilitated; later generations have more strongly gravitated to the understanding that he was railroaded.)

And it launched an ensuing, decade-long project of Francis’s, to squeeze wealthy financiers through the commission de la Tour Carree and thereby get in the good graces of the early modern bond markets unsettled by France’s 1520s fiscal faceplant.

There’s a nasty apparent allusion in Rabelais’s Pantagruel to this procedure:

We noticed in a great Press from twenty to twenty-five huge Gallows-birds round a great Table [bourreau, punning bureau] covered with green Cloth, staring at each other, with their Hands as long as Crane’s Legs and their Nails two Feet long at least, — for they are forbidden ever to pare them, so that they become as crooked as Bills or Boat-hooks — and just at that time was brought in a great Bunch of Grapes which they gather in that Country, from the Vine called Extraordinaire, the Grapes from which often hang on Poles. As soon as the Bunch was laid there, they put it under the Press, and there was not a Berry from which they did not squeeze Oil of Gold, insomuch that the poor Bunch was carried off so drained and stripped, that there was not a Drop of Juice or Liquor left.

Most of those Tour Carree prosecutions didn’t result in executions — “merely” confiscations of lands and titles which could be re-sold, and sentences which could be commuted for a fine. R.J. Knecht, in The Rise and Fall of Renaissance France, 1483-1610, puts the king’s profit on such confiscations into the millions of livres.

But to make those shakedowns seem a small price to pay, the threat of Semblancay’s example must have lurked in the background for targeted nobles.

(Semblancay himself had been reckless enough not to accept an initial mostly-exoneration in the inquiry that preceded his arrest and trial, since part of it required him to “repay” supposed debts to Louise of Savoy. His appeal against that part of the judgment might have set him up to be the cautionary example for everyone else.)

Guillaume de La Perrierre captured the vibe with one of his “emblems” in Le Théâtre des bons engins, number XL:


Also see emblem number LXXV.

The Beaune name would scintillate to posterity through such illustrious descendants as Renaud de Beaune (French link), a notable archbishop; and, more salaciously, Escadron Volant all-star Charlotte de Beaune Semblançay, who seduced powerful nobles at Catherine de’ Medici’s behest.

A lengthy French history of our day’s early modern moneybags can be perused here; when visiting Tours, you can revisit the days when he was in the chips by crashing at one of the many buildings he put, the Hotel de Beaune-Semblancay.

* Sentence was pronounced on Friday, Aug. 9, but a stay granted until Monday, Aug. 12 for the condemned man to pursue his appeal to the king. Some sources give Aug. 9 as the execution date, and some Aug. 11; both of these appear to be incorrect. See David Graham in An Interregnum of the Sign: The Emblematic Age in France – Essays in Honour of Daniel S.Russell.

** There’s another (translated to English) meditation Marot wrote on Semblancay here, in the first-person voice of the hanged man. Marot was a friend of the eventually-executed French linguist and translator Etienne Dolet, and his own unorthodox opinions would eventually require him to flee the realm for his life.

We do note that in this era of combative pamphleteering, the geezer who made himself a tycoon by administering the taxes wasn’t universally supported by the literary set. Roger de Collerye (cited here) hooted Jacques de Beaune into the hereafter with the verses,

Tremblez, tremblez, larrons gros & petiz!
Retirez vous, gens trop fins et subtilz!
Absentez vous bientost & prenez terre,
Gens de finances et tresoriers gentilz
Qui d’attrapper estes tant ententifz.
Sur vous surviegne tempeste & tonerre!
Craignez la court qui vous donna la guerre
Bien asprement, quant je l’ay pance,
Souvieigne vous de la mort Sant Blancey!

† It happened yet again in September 1535, to Jean Poncher. Historically, proximity to the French crown’s revenues was also proximity to the gallows.

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1952: Night of the Murdered Poets

2 comments August 12th, 2009 Headsman

As night fell this evening in Moscow, 13 prominent Soviet Jews were shot in Lubyanka Prison on trumped-up charges of treason and espionage.

“The Night of the Murdered Poets”, as it’s come to be remembered, wasn’t so much about the poetry; “only” five of the victims fit that description.

But as Joshua Rubenstein put it, “only the martyred Yiddish writers are mentioned at August 12 commemorations; the other defendants who lost their lives, as well as the sole survivor Lina Shtern, are rarely if ever remembered, perhaps because their careers as loyal Soviet citizens do not fit comfortably into an easy category for Westerners to honor … Stalin repaid their loyalty by destroying them.”

Falling victim to Stalin was such a particularly tragic fate because they were, in the main, good Communists:* good enough to have been part of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, a World War II organ dedicated to rallying support for the Soviet Union against Nazi Germany.

Such national particularism — any port in a storm! — was all well and good when Moscow had the Wehrmacht at its gates and a short supply of friends, but it increasingly ran dangerously afoul Soviet officialdom as the 1940’s progressed. It was a bastion of sectarian identity rather than socialist universalism; its celebration of the Jewish soldier and of Jewish wartime travails cut against the narrative of Soviet sacrifice and heroism; its overseas links to the United States (where it toured in wartime) and the new state of Israel made it suspect, or at least vulnerable.

Thin excuse for mass execution, to be sure, but in a structure of generalized antisemitism run by a trigger-happy dictator …

In 1948-49, fifteen JAC members were arrested. One would die in prison; the aforementioned Lina Stern, a scientist, would receive a term of exile and return to Moscow when this purge’s victims were rehabilitated after Stalin’s death.

The thirteen others were tortured and condemned by a rigged (but secret, since many of the accused wouldn’t cop to public self-denunciations) trial

Years before his arrest, Markish would write words to make a eulogy for many a disillusioned Soviet citizen … and literally so in his case, since the verse was cited at his trial as evidence of his “pessimism”:

Now, when my vision turns in on itself,
My shocked eyes open, all their members see
My heart has fallen like a mirror on
A stone and shatters, ringing, into splinters.

Piece by piece I’ll try to gather them
To make them whole with stabbed and bleeding fingers.
And yet, however skillfully they’re glued,
My crippled, broken image will be seen.

* Naturally, being a good Communist did not keep one safe from Uncle Joe.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Entertainers,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,Torture,Treason,USSR,Women,Wrongful Executions

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