1936: Melquiades Alvarez, a liberal in a revolutionary time

1 comment August 22nd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1936, the Spanish politician Melquíades Álvarez was shot by the Republicans.

A centrist who disdained “two equally despicable fanaticisms … red fanaticism and black bigotry,” Alvarez (English Wikipedia entry | the more comprehensive Spanish) fell into the chasm torn by the Spanish Civil War.

The Gijon-born former barrister noted for his oratory had been in public life as a liberal back to the last years of the 19th century and in 1912 co-founded the Reform or Reformist Party. Although sympathetic to the democratic aspirations of the Republican movement, the Reform Party was cool to forcing a confrontation with Spain’s monarchy. He was briefly president of the Congress of Deputies before the military coup of Primo de Rivera. Alvarez opposed Primo, judiciously.

I recalled many years ago going to see another vacillating Liberal, the unfortunate Melquiades Alvarez, after he had ventured to criticise Primo at a public dinner. He was shivering in a travelling rug waiting to be arrested while he told with pride that he had made his speech in such guarded, euphemistic and even allegorical terms that no one would have been quite sure what he meant. He vacillated to the end and now the militia have shot him in the Carcel Modelo.

V.S. Pritchett

By the onset of the Republic in the 1930s, Alvarez’s institutionalism and anti-Marxism had his political tendency drifting rightwards in a revolutionary era, to the extent of actually joining the conservative coalition known as CEDA. Alvarez would surely have said that the Republic left him; a liberal to a fault, he even in these years defended the son of Primo de Rivera when this founder of the fascist Falange was arrested for conspiring to overthrow the Republic.

So the start of General Francisco Franco’s rebellion in 1936 found Alvarez in Madrid as a center-right parliamentarian — right in the path of a sharp political repression immediately leveled by the Republicans against perceived internal enemies. Alvarez and other right-leaning politicians were arrested in early August. Many, like Alvarez, were eventually shot by Republican militias after the barest of legal proceedings.

“You kill a man who only did you good,” Alvarez spat at his executioners before they opened up on him. “You slaughter in the worst way any idea of freedom and democracy, you pack of cowards and scoundrels!” (Quote translated from this Spanish-language pdf account of Alvarez’s last days.)


In this 1917 cartoon, Alvarez, a key political player during Spain’s crisis and near-revolution that year, swaps the caps of monarchism and republicanism in an “illusion” … for “everything remains the same”

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1831: Edward Hogsden, rapist father

Add comment August 22nd, 2017 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1831, Edward Hogsden (some reports call him “Hodgson”) was executed for rape in Surrey, England.

He’d committed the crime on July 27, less than a month earlier; the victim was his own seventeen-year-old daughter, Harriet. The story is told in Martin Baggoley’s book Surrey Executions: A Complete List of those Hanged in the County during the Nineteenth Century.

Hogsden’s mother had died, and on the night before the attack that brought him to the gallows Hogsden kept a dolorous vigil at the cemetery to keep body-snatchers from violating her grave. Harriet’s mother, as per her usual routine, got up and left for work at 4:00 a.m.; both she and her husband were employed by a local farmer.

Two hours later, Harriet awoke as her father was returning home. At the time, she was lying in bed with her baby — “the offspring, as the girl swore, of a former forced connexion with her unnatural parent.” (The Newgate Calendar*) A few minutes after he arrived, Edward crawled into Harriet’s bed, demanding sex. She begged him to leave her alone and said she could not stand to bear another of his children.

But Edward was without mercy. He raped her, threatening to kill her if she made any noise, and as he left her to go to work he told her that as far as he was concerned both she and the baby could drown.

It was the last straw for Harriet: she had her sister summon their mother and finally confided in her about the abuse she’d been enduring for much of her life. Horrified, Harriet’s mother summoned the magistrate, who had Hogsden arrested.

“I admit I had connection with her,” Hogsden told the authorities, “but she was always agreeable.”

At his trial, Hogsden maintained that Harriet wasn’t his biological child; that their shocking relationship had always been consensual; and that, come on, who’d be in an incestuous mood after passing the whole night contemplating mom’s bones? He charged that his daughter was revenging herself after papa Hogsden caught her in bed with another man and threw him out of the house.

“Nevertheless,” notes Baggoley,

he acknowledged he had been having sex with her since she was nine years old. Clearly nobody believed his account, or that Harriet was not his natural daughter, or that she had willingly agreed to comply with his demands that day or in the past.

The Newgate Calendar concluded,

We shall abstain from adding any further account of the life of this diabolical ruffian, exhibiting as its circumstances do a degree of sinfulness and crime not exceeded by any of those bloodthirsty murderers whose offences it is our duty to describe.

Nothing further is known of the fate of Harriet Hogsden, or her baby.

* Displaying its customarily cavalier regard for detail, the Newgate Calendar pegs the hanging to August 21, which was a Sunday in 1831. The correct date is August 22.

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1972: The Trelew Massacre

3 comments August 22nd, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1972, Argentina’s junta authored the extrajudicial execution of 16 political prisoners after a jailbreak attempt.

Remembered as the Trelew Massacre (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish), it’s been back in the news for an Argentine court’s 2012 conviction of executioners Emilio Del Real, Luis Sosa and Carlos Marandino for crimes against humanity.

One week to the day before those 16 crimes, more than 100 captured guerrillas from both leftist and Peronist movements attempted a mass breakout from Rawson Prison. The plan was to rendezvous with some well-timed getaway drivers who would whisk everyone to the airport where a flight waited to carry them to Salvador Allende’s Chile, which was then still a year away from its own military coup.

Between drivers failing to turn up and others arriving late to the airstrip the operation was a logistical catastrophe. Six people actually managed to escape abroad;* nineteen others, having made it to the airport but missing the flight, salvaged what they could be summoning a press conference and surrendering without resistance. They hoped to protect themselves by putting their case into the public eye.

Navy Lt. Commander Luis Emilio Sosa took the would-be fugitives to a naval base near the port of Trelew — not back to Rawson.

In the early hours of the morning on August 22, all nineteen were awoken, lined up, and machine-gunned by a detachment commanded by Sosa and Lt. Roberto Bravo. Twelve died on the scene; the others were dumped in the infirmary where four more succumbed. It would be put about, as usual, that the murdered prisoners had been shot trying to escape but that story didn’t convince many people. From exile, Juan Peron decried it as “murder”; protests and guerrilla attacks occurred on the anniversary of the slaughter for the next several years.

Sosa and Real both died just a few weeks ago, in July 2016. Beyond the three men it convicted for the Trelew affair, Argentina has also appealed unsuccessfully to the U.S. to extradite Lt. Bravo, who has been living comfortably in Miami since 1973.

* These escapees went on to various interesting — and often violent — fates in revolutionary Latin America. One of them, Enrique Gorriaran Merlo, would eventually help to assassinate exiled Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.

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1572: Thomas Percy, Earl of Northumberland and rebel

Add comment August 22nd, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1572, Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, lost his head for treason.

The latest patriarch of a northern family illustrious in rebellion, little Tom was all of nine years old when his father the 6th Earl of Northumberland got his own head lopped off for rising in support of the Pilgrimage of Grace.

That was back in 1537, but the ensuing decades had scarcely settled the realm’s religious strife … much to the profit of these here morbid annals.

Like his father, Thomas Percy was a chip off the Old Religion’s block. That suited everyone just fine as the young man earned his spurs in war during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary. Everything got awkward again when Mary died childless and left England to the Protestant daughter of Anne Boleyn.

Catholic hopes accordingly attached themselves to Mary, Queen of Scots, who soon became mired in — and then defeated by — a civil war. While Mary still fought her corner there was at least a Catholic monarch afoot in the land; when she was beaten she had to surrender herself to the English.

Rightly supposing that Elizabeth would prove extremely reluctant ever to set Mary loose ever again,* Percy teamed up with another discontented northern Catholic, the Earl of Westmoreland, to launch the aptly-named Northern Rebellion. The object of this revolt was to liberate the Catholic queen and if possible restore Briain to the Church

Forasmuch as divers disordered and well-disposed persons about the Queen’s Majesty, have, by their subtle and crafty dealings to advance themselves, overcome in this Realm, the true and Catholic Religion towards God, and by the same abused the Queen, disordered the Realm, and now lastly seek and procure the destruction of the Nobility; We, therefore, have gathered ourselves together to resist by force, and the rather by the help of God and you good people, to see redress of these things amiss, with the restoring of all ancient customs and liberties to God’s Church, and this noble Realm. (Soure)

This rebellion was handily defeated and not a few of the couple thousand followers cobbled together by the aristocrats faced summary nooses for their treachery (for instance, 66 of the garrison that the rebel lords made bold to plant at Durham were executed when that city was recaptured). The lords, however, escaped to Scotland and sought passage out of England. Westmoreland made it;** his partner was caught in Scotland in 1572 by Regent Moray and turned over to English justice.

Herafter, hopes of Catholic restoration reposed not in civil war but in conspiracy … where they fared just as poorly.

* She never did: Mary made her exit from prison courtesy of the scaffold.

** Westmoreland died in the end the penniless — but never-executed — exile dependent of the King of Spain. Westmoreland’s wife, however, would live to see her brother Thomas Howard executed for the 1572 Ridolfi Plot, another Catholic conspiracy.

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1814: John Ashton, Lord Wellington, at Horace Cotton’s first hanging

Add comment August 22nd, 2013 Headsman

This isn’t exactly the most historically important execution, but as the Newgate Calendar says, “The circumstance which attended the execution of this unfortunate man alone entitles him to a place in our pages, for otherwise his case is void of interest.”

What follows is the Calendar’s entry, which comes verbatim from the Aug. 23 London Times.

He was apprehended for a highway robbery, and convicted at the Old Bailey, when he received sentence of death. From the time of his conviction, he either affected, or suffered, complete insanity; but this did not release him from the consequence of his sentence; and, on Monday, August 22d, 1814, he was executed in front of Newgate, along with William Henry Lye, for burglary; John Mitchell, for forgery; Francis Sturgess, and Michael Mahoney, for highway robbery; and John Field, alias Jonathan Wild [not that one -ed.], for burglary. By half past six o’clock the Old Bailey, and houses adjacent, were crowded to great excess. At half past seven Mahoney was brought forward, for the purpose of being disencumbered of his irons. While his irons were knocking off, it was found necessary to search for a knife to cut some part of the cordage, which confined the irons. Mahoney, seeing this, stooped, and, with an Herculean effort, tore it asunder. This being the only Catholic, the Rev. Mr. Devereux attended him in constant prayer, in which he joined most fervently. Sturgess, Field, and Mitchell, conducted themselves with great propriety. The unfortunate Ashton had been in a state of insanity since the receipt of the awful warrant for his execution. In the Press Yard he distorted his countenance horribly. He was the fifth who mounted the scaffold, and ran up the steps with great rapidity; and, having gained the summit of the platform, began to kick and dance, and often exclaimed, ‘I’m Lord Wellington!’ The Rev. Mr. Cotton, who officiated for the first time as Ordinary, enjoined him to prayer, to which he paid little attention, and continued to clap his hands as far as he was permitted by the extent of the cord. Mitchell often invited him to prayer. All that could be done was ineffectual, and it was necessary to have two men to hold him during the awful ceremony. When they released him for the purpose of the Lord’s Prayer being said, he turned round, and began to dance, and vociferated, Look at me; ‘I am Lord Wellington!’ At twenty minutes past eight o’clock the signal was given, and the platform fell. Scarcely, however, had the sufferers dropped, before, to the awe and astonishment of every beholder, Ashton rebounded from the rope, and was instantaneously seen dancing near the Ordinary, and crying out very loudly, and apparently unhurt, ‘What do ye think of me? Am I not Lord Wellington now?’ then danced, clapped his hands, and huzzaed. At length the executioner was compelled to get up the scaffold, and to push him forcibly from the place which he stood.

Quite a baptism for the Rev. Horace Salusbury Cotton’s very first gig as the Ordinary. Cotton noted Ashton’s remarkable behavior in his execution diary; the relevant pages can be seen here.

Nothing daunted, Cotton enjoyed a 25-year run in the position (he was the cleric Charles Dickens saw at work when the writer visited Newgate in 1835), and “enjoyed” really does seem like the right word. “He was a robust, rosy, well-fed, unctuous individual, whose picture may be seen in Cruikshank‘s plate of the Press yard in Pierce Egan‘s ‘Life in London,'” wrote Horace Bleackley. “His condemned sermons were more terrific than those of any of his predecessors, and he was censured by the authorities for ‘harrowing the prisoner’s feelings unnecessarily’ in the case of Henry Fauntleroy, the banker.”


Dr Cotton, Ordinary of Newgate, Announcing the Death Warrant, by a prisoner named W. Thomson. This 1826 watercolor is at the Tate gallery.

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1700: The Rev. Thomas Hunter, M.A.

Add comment August 22nd, 2012 Headsman

We doubt that any interposition of ours can improve the story of this execution as provided in the Newgate Calendar:


Executed on 22nd of August, 1700, near Edinburgh, for the diabolical Murder out of Revenge of the Two Children of Mr Gordon

It is with deep regret that we are compelled to bring before the reader a murderer, in a character which ever should be held most sacred. A crime more premeditated, and more fraught with cruelty, never stained the annals of history. Ambition has often impelled tyrants to shed innocent blood; revenge has stimulated men to kill each other; jealousy with ‘jaundiced eye’ destroys the object of its love; but God forbid that we should ever again have to record the fact of a tutor, a minister of the Gospel, premeditatedly murdering his pupils! — the sons of his benefactor. When we add, that this most miserable sinner expiated his offence in avowing himself an atheist, we arrive, at once, at the very depth of human depravity.

This detestable culprit was born in the county of Fife, in Scotland, and was the son of a rich farmer, who sent him to the University of St Andrews for education. When he had acquired a sufficient share of classical learning he was admitted to the degree of Master of Arts, and began to prosecute his studies in divinity with no small degree of success. Several of the younger clergymen act as tutors to wealthy and distinguished families till a proper period arrives for their entering into orders, which they never do till they obtain a benefice. While in this rank of life they bear the name of chaplains; and in this station Hunter lived about two years in the house of Mr Gordon, a very eminent merchant, and one of the bailies of Edinburgh, which is a rank equal to that of alderman of London.

Mr Gordon’s family consisted of himself, his lady, two sons and a daughter, a young woman who attended Mrs Gordon and her daughter, the malefactor in question, some clerks and menial servants. To the care of Hunter was committed the education of the two sons; and for a considerable time he discharged his duty in a manner highly satisfactory to the parents, who considered him as a youth of superior genius and great goodness of heart. Unfortunately a connection took place between Hunter and the young woman, which soon increased to a criminal degree, and was maintained for a considerable time without the knowledge of the family.

One day, however, when Mr and Mrs Gordon were on a visit, Hunter and his girl met in their chamber as usual; but, having been so incautious as not to make their door fast, the children went into the room and found them in such a situation as could not admit of any doubt of the nature of their intercourse. No suspicion was entertained that these children would mention to their parents what had happened, the eldest boy being not quite ten years of age; but when the children were at supper with their parents they disclosed so much as left no room to doubt of what had passed. Hereupon the female servant was directed to quit the house on the following day; but Hunter was continued in the family, after making a proper apology for the crime of which he had been guilty, attributing it to the thoughtlessness of youth, and promising never to offend in the same way again.

From this period he entertained the most inveterate hatred to all the children, on whom he determined in his own mind to wreak the most diabolical vengeance. Nothing less than murder was his intention; but it was a considerable time after he had formed this horrid plan before he had an opportunity of carrying it into execution.

Whenever it was a fine day he was accustomed to walk in the fields with his pupils for an hour before dinner, and in these excursions the young lady generally attended her brothers. At the period immediately preceding the commission of the fatal act Mr Gordon and his family were at their country retreat, very near Edinburgh; and having received an invitation to dine in that city, he and his lady proposed to go thither about the time that Hunter usually took his noontide walk with the children. Mrs Gordon was very anxious for all the children to accompany them on this visit, but this was strenuously opposed by her husband, who would consent that only the little girl should attend them.

By this circumstance Hunter’s intention of murdering all the three children was frustrated; but he held the resolution of destroying the boys while they were yet in his power. With this view he took them into the fields and sat down as if to repose himself on the grass.

This event took place soon after the middle of the month of August, 1700 and Hunter was preparing his knife to put a period to the lives of the children at the very moment they were busied in catching butterflies and gathering wild flowers. Having sharpened his knife, he called the lads to him, and when he had reprimanded them for acquainting their father and mother to the scene to which they had been witnesses, said that he would immediately put them to death.

Terrified by this threat, the children ran from him; but he immediately followed and brought them back. He then placed his knee on the body of the one while he cut the throat of the other with his penknife, and then treated the second in the same inhuman manner that he had done the first. These horrid murders were committed within half-a-mile of the Castle of Edinburgh; and as the deed was perpetrated in the middle of the day, and in the open fields, it would have been very wonderful indeed if the murderer had not been immediately taken into custody.

At the very time a gentleman was walking on the Castle hill of Edinburgh, who had a tolerably perfect view of what passed. Alarmed by the incident, he called some people, who ran with him to the place where the children were lying dead. Hunter now had advanced towards a river, with a view to drown himself. Those who pursued came up with him just as he reached the brink of the river; and his person being immediately known to them, a messenger was instantly dispatched to Mr and Mrs Gordon, who were at that moment going to dinner with their friend, to inform them of the horrid murder of their sons.

Language is too weak to describe the effects resulting from the communication of this dreadful news; the astonishment of the afflicted father, the agony of the frantic mother, may possibly be conceived, though it cannot be painted.

According to an old Scottish law it was decreed that “if a murderer should be taken with the blood of the murdered person on his clothes, he should be prosecuted in the Sheriff’s Court, and executed within three days after the commission of the fact.” It was not common to execute this sentence with rigour; but this offender’s crime was of so aggravated a nature, that it was not thought proper to remit anything of the utmost severity of the law.

The prisoner was therefore committed to jail and chained down to the floor all night, and on the following day the sheriff issued his precept for the jury to meet; and in consequence of their verdict Hunter was brought to his trial, when he pleaded guilty, and added to the offence he had already committed the horrid crime of declaring that he only lamented not having murdered Mr Gordon’s daughter as well as his sons. The sheriff now passed sentence on the convict, which was to the following purpose: that “on the succeeding day he should be executed on a gibbet, erected for that purpose on the spot where he had committed the murders; but that, previous to his execution, his right hand should be cut off with a hatchet, near the wrist; that then he should be drawn up to the gibbet by a rope, and when he was dead, hung in chains between Edinburgh and Leith, the knife with which he committed the murders being stuck through his hand, which should be advanced over his head and fixed therewith to the top of the gibbet.”

Mr Hunter was executed in strict conformity to the above sentence on the 22nd of August, 1700. But Mr Gordon soon afterwards petitioned the sheriff that the body might be removed to a more distant spot, as its hanging on the side of the highway, through which he frequently passed, tended to re-excite his grief for the occasion that had first given rise to it. This requisition was immediately complied with, and in a few days the body was removed to the skirts of a small village near Edinburgh, named Broughton. It is equally true and horrid to relate, that, at the place of execution, Hunter closed his life with the following shocking declaration: “There is no God — I do not believe there is any or if there is, I hold him in defiance.” Yet this infidel had professed himself to be a minister of the Gospel!

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1851: Two men hanged and one lynched in Sacramento

1 comment August 22nd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1851, three men were publicly hanged from a scaffold at Fourth and O Street in Sacramento, California: John Thompson* and James Gibson legally, and William Robinson under color of lynch law.

According to Ken Gonzales-Day’s Lynching in the West: 1850-1935, all three had been condemned to death under the brand-new state‘s brand-new Criminal Practices Act, making theft a capital offense.

They had assaulted and robbed a guy on the streets of Sacramento a few weeks previous, and the local vigilance committee had already made plain its impatience with the matter: upon the granting of a legal motion to stay the trial three days in order to allow the defense to actually prepare, an orderly posse had firmly forced the court back into session to proceed with the speediest of trials. Any outcome other than death could scarcely have come to pass.

Nonetheless, California governor John McDougall made bold to stay one of the hangings, that of William Robinson.**

The San Francisco-based Alta California — which had previously (August 1, 1851) editorialized in strong support of the forced trial: “If our courts would in all cases act, the people would have no occasion for assuming the responsibility of ferretting out criminals, and awarding them their proper punishment” — narrated (September 1, 1851) a, er, popular veto of that gubernatorial mercy.

The Executions in Sacramento City

The Sacramento papers of Saturday are filled with accounts of the exciting scenes that have transpired in that city within a few days past.

We condense from the Sacramento Union, a decription [sic] of the occurrences of Friday last.

THE SCENES OF YESTERDAY. — By daylight yesterdat morning, teams, horsemen and pedestrians, were seen pouring into the city from every direction, and at an early hour the city was crowded with miners and strangers from the country, who had come in to witness the execution of the three culprits, Thompson, Gibson and Robinson.

Soon after nine o’clock, a rumor ran through the city, that a respite of Robinson’s sentence had been received from the Governor, and that the day of his execution was to be postponed until the 19th day of September. …

As the hour for the execution drew nigh, the crowd around the Station House became immense, and there was evidently a fixed determination in the minds of the populace that the prisoner, Robinson, should suffer the same penalty as the other two culprits, and that, too, in spite of the Governor’s proclamation …

The Sheriff, after reading the reprieve, ordered the two prisoners, Gibson and Thompson, to be taken to the place of execution, and likewise commanded the “Guards” to convey the prisoner, Robinson, to the Prison brig. The former two were then placed in a wagon, with their arms securely pinioned, and driven rapidly off, in company with the officers, to the scaffold.

The “Guards” then brought out Robinson, and attempted to convey him to the prison brig, but were compelled, on the corner of 2d street, to deliver their prisoner to the people, who placed him in a cart, and thus, surrounded by the “Guards,” were escorted to a grove near the place where the scaffold was erected.

A committee was appointed who were to take charge of the execution of Robinson after the legal authorities had performed their duty.

While these proceedings were going on at the grove, the final peparations for the execution of the unfortunate men, Gibson and Thompson, were progressing. …

The prisoners bore themselves with the greatest fortitude throughout the whole of this tragical scene, and not the slightest agitation was perceptible. At the moment the cord was cut, a cry was heard — “Now for Robinson.” The shout went up from the dense throng, “Hang the scoundrel!” — “Bring him here!” — “Let him hang too!”

The scene which followed was the most terrific we ever witnessed. The thronging crowds rushed for the station house in the greatest excitement, and on all sides was heard the thrilling cry, “Hang the rascal!” In the mean time the Sheriff, having performed his duty efficiently and faithfully, retired from the scene, as did also the officers with whom he was connected.

The muffled drum of the Guards announced that the culprit Robinson was approaching. The crowd gave way, the Committee with their prisoner slowly and solemnly ascended the scaffold, and the Guards formed a hollow square around it below.

Robinson appeared perfectly cool and collected, and on being requested to address the crowd, came forward, and in a clear voice made another confession. He evidently appeared desirous of creating a sensation, and accordingly commenced by alleging the grossest and most unfounded charges against men who stand high in this community … we do not feel ourselves justified on such evidence as this, in proclaiming to the world that officers who have heretofore been deemed perfectly upright and honourable, are no better than felons.

After the events of Friday, a portion of the excited populace assembled during the evening, and hung John McDougal in effigy. This proceeding, perhaps, was more the result of a hasty and excited spirit on the part of the few, than the calm reflection of the public mind, although the Union apologizes for the act by observing that persons engaged in it did not desire to cast obloquy on the office, but to exhibit their contempt for its incumbent.

* Thompson’s real name was evidently McDermott. The Espy file of historical American executions calls him “Thornton,” though it’s not clear whether this was yet another alias or simply an erroneous entry in the database.

** According to a different article in the same September 1, 1851 Alta California, the governor’s grounds for clemency were “the conviction of about thirty men … that Robinson was quite guiltless of the offence with which he stood charged. That false testimony had been trumped up to convict him, that he was not a hardened man, had fought the battles of his country, and finally, (as stated in a letter from a clergyman) he was quite a promising youth, of pious education, and possessing a ‘good understanding of the Christian doctrines.'”

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1679: St. John Kemble, 80-year-old priest

2 comments August 22nd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1679, 80-year-old Catholic priest John Kemble was martyred for the faith at Hereford.

Kemble had been discreetly performing the offices of his faith — still illicit, but less liable to get you killed at this late date — for over five decades since ordination.

Unhappily, Titus Oates and his tall tales of a Popish Plot to assassinate King Charles II came along at the end of that run. In the ensuing anti-Catholic spasm, Kemble was one of the unlucky ones rousted.

Even in the hysteria of the times, nobody could make an actual conspiracy charge stick against this ancient cleric, but in the hands of a sufficiently hostile judiciary, his demonstrable exercise of the priesthood could be enough to make him a traitor. And at his age, the opportunity to buy his life at the cost of his conscience didn’t look the bargain:

According to the course of nature I have but a few years to live. It will be an advantage to suffer for my religion and therefore I will not abscond.

He got the mild consolation of hanging to death before the unpleasant drawing-and-quartering bits were executed upon him, and calmly puffed a pipe and shared a bowl of wine with the sympathetic representatives of the law before it all happened. As a result, Herefordshire long called the comforts enjoyed before a parting a “Kemble pipe” and “Kemble cup”.

He’s been elevated to sainthood on the strength of his posthumous miracles, like healing the jailer’s daughter of throat cancer; the holy man’s severed hand, held at St. Francis Xavier’s in Hereford, is supposed to have saved a man from death as recently as 1995.

(The rest of St. John Kemble reposes at Welsh Newton, and is venerated at an annual pilgrimage.)

Kemble was among the last of the Forty Martyrs of England to die for the Catholic faith; a fellow-inmate, David Lewis, paid his own penalty just five days later.

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408: Stilicho, whose execution let in the barbarians

3 comments August 22nd, 2008 Headsman

Sixteen hundred years ago today, the general whose talents were the last bulwark against barbarian conquest of the Western Roman Empire submitted for the sake of civil peace to execution at the hands of a callow boy-emperor.

The half-Vandal patrician Stilicho comes to the notice of posterity late in the reign of Theodosius the Great, the last Roman to rule both Eastern and Western Empires. At Theodosius’s death in 395, his two sons ascended the separate thrones.

Honorius, a 10-year-old child, took the purple in the west and somehow held it for 28 lackluster years that saw Rome’s long erosion finally set the realm on the slide into collapse.*

An apt commander, Stilicho had held Visigoth king Alaric at bay in two invasions of Italy (the crucial Battle of Pollentia stanched the first).


Stilicho and his wife Serena, with their child: two were executed, one was murdered.

Distrusted because of his part-barbarian parentage — and hated by the still-significant pagan community for burning the Sibylline Books — Stilicho’s service never made him popular. Because Alaric had escaped his battlefield defeats, it was whispered that Stilicho had connived with him … and Stilicho’s alliance of his legions with Alaric against other barbarians in Illyrium and Burgundy only heightened the suspicions.

We have little reliable basis to judge the possible truth of these accusations; the fundamental fact was that Rome no longer exercised its accustomed hegemony, and its principals needed to balance interests, cut deals and allocate scarce resources in ways that would have been unthinkable a century or two before.** The army itself was mostly barbarian; Alaric himself had once been a Roman officer.

In the story as related by Zosimus — a later Byzantine historian, a pagan famously abusive towards Christians and elsewhere critical of Stilicho, here softening his stance as he turns to savage his executioners — a wormtongued advisor got the ear of the still-youthful emperor and turned him against the general who was holding back the cataclysm.

Stilicho … was not conscious of any ill intention either against the emperor or the soldiers, [but] Olympius, a native of the vicinity of the Euxine sea, and an officer of rank in the court-guards, concealed under the disguise of the Christian religion the most atrocious designs in his heart. Being accustomed, because of his affected modesty and gentle demeanor, to converse frequently with the emperor, he used many bitter expressions against Stilicho, and stated that he was desirous to proceed into the east, from no other motive than to acquire an opportunity of … placing the empire in the hands of his own son, Eucherius. … Olympius, accustoming himself to visit the sick soldiers, which was the master-piece of his hypocrisy, dispersed among them, likewise, similar insinuations. … they were excited almost to madness … then dispersing themselves about the city, killed as many of the magistrates as they could lay hands on, tearing them out of the houses into which they had fled, and plundered all the town. … The tumult continued till late in the night, and the emperor fearing lest any violence should be committed against his own person also, for which reason he withdrew. … There likewise perished so great a number of promiscuous persons as is beyond all computation.

When intelligence of this reached Stilicho, who was then at Bononia, he was extremely disturbed by it. Summoning, therefore, all the commanders of his confederate Barbarians, who were with him, he proposed a consultation relative to what measures it would be most prudent to adopt. It was agreed with common consent, that if the emperor were killed, which was yet doubtful, all the confederated Barbarians should join together, and fall at once on the Roman soldiers, and by that means afford a warning to all others to use greater moderation and submissiveness. But if the emperor were safe, although the magistrates were cut off, the authors of the tumult were to be brought to condign punishment. Such was the result of the consultation held by Stilicho with his Barbarians. When they knew that no indignity had been offered to the person of the emperor, Stilicho resolved to proceed no further in punishing or correcting the soldiers, but to return to Ravenna. For he reflected both on the number of the soldiers, and that the emperor was not steadfastly his friend. Nor did he think it either honourable or safe to incite Barbarians against the Roman army.

It came to a bad end, Stilicho nobly refusing the prospect of his allies upholding his cause by arms:

Stilicho being therefore filled with anxiety concerning these circumstances, the Barbarians who were with him were very desirous of putting in force their former resolutions, and therefore endeavoured to dissuade him from the measures which he afterwards thought proper to be adopted. But being unable to prevail with him, they all determined to remain in some place until they should be better apprized of the emperor’s sentiments towards Stilicho, … In the meantime Olympius, who was now become master of the emperor’s inclination, sent the imperial mandate to the soldiers at Ravenna, ordering them immediately to apprehend Stilicho, and to detain him in prison without fetters. When Stilicho heard this, he took refuge in a Christian church that was near, while it was night. His Barbarians and his other familiars, who, with his servants, were all armed, upon seeing this expected what would ensue. When day appeared, the soldiers, entering the church, swore before the bishop that they were commanded by the emperor not to kill Stilicho, but to keep him in custody. Being brought out of the church, and in the custody of the soldiers, other letters were delivered by the person who brought the first, in which the punishment of death was denounced against Stilicho, for his crimes against the commonwealth. Thus, while Eucherius, his son, fled towards Rome, Stilicho was led to execution. The Barbarians who attended him, with his servants and other friends and relations, of whom there was a vast number, preparing and resolving to rescue him from the stroke, Stilicho deterred them from the attempt by all imaginable menaces, and calmly submitted his neck to the sword. He was the most moderate and just of all the men who possessed great authority in his time. … he never conferred military rank for money, or coverted the stipend of the soldiers to his own use. … In order that no studious person, or astrologers, may be ignorant of the time of his death, I shall relate that it happened in the consulship of Bassus and Philippus, during which the emperor Arcadius submitted to fate, on the twenty-second day of August.

This date is the end of the line for Stilicho, but hardly the end of the troubles that laid him low. A spasm of mob violence against barbarians on the peninsula ensued; the executed general’s son was among those murdered. Teutons, many of them Roman soldiers, in turn flocked to the banner of Alaric, who promptly swarmed into the enfeebled Italian lands and for the first time in 800 years sacked Rome.

Romans knew just who to blame: Stilicho’s widow, who was herself executed at the order of the Senate. In Gibbon’s relating:

The first emotions of the nobles, and of the people, were those of surprise and indignation, that a vile Barbarian should dare to insult the capital of the world: but their arrogance was soon humbled by misfortune; and their unmanly rage, instead of being directed against an enemy in arms, was meanly exercised on a defenceless and innocent victim. Perhaps in the person of Serena, the Romans might have respected the niece of Theodosius, the aunt, nay, even the adoptive mother, of the reigning emperor: but they abhorred the widow of Stilicho; and they listened with credulous passion to the tale of calumny, which accused her of maintaining a secret and criminal correspondence with the Gothic invader. Actuated, or overawed, by the same popular frenzy, the senate, without requiring any evidence of his guilt, pronounced the sentence of her death. Serena was ignominiously strangled; and the infatuated multitude were astonished to find, that this cruel act of injustice did not immediately produce the retreat of the Barbarians, and the deliverance of the city. That unfortunate city gradually experienced the distress of scarcity, and at length the horrid calamities of famine.

Alaric made out quite a lot better.

* Such, at least, is the conventional assessment of Honorius. For a take friendlier to the emperor (and less so to Stilicho), see here.

** Stilicho, incidentally, called home the second-last legion of Roman troops from Britain for use closer to home, and the island’s remaining Roman presence was cut off by barbarian incursions into Gaul during his lifetime … setting that island on its independent way (into, if you like, the Arthurian age); Honorius would later answer a plea for help from those lands with a note to the effect of, “good luck on your own.”

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Entry Filed under: Ancient,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Italy,Nobility,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Roman Empire,Scandal,Soldiers,Treason,Volunteers,Wrongful Executions

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