1941: Henri Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves, the first martyr of Free France

Add comment August 29th, 2018 Headsman

Henri Honoré d’Estienne d’Orves, the “first martyr of Free France”, fell to German guns at the Fort du Mont Valerien on this date in 1941, along with two companions.

A Catholic nationalist naval officer, d’Estienne d’Orves found himself in Egypt in June 1940, when his government capitulated to the devastating German blitz.

Eschewing the accommodationist crowd, d’Estienne d’Orves made his way first to a fleet in Somaliland, and then around the Cape of Good Hope and up to London, to link arms with de Gaulle’s Free French government-in-exile. By December of 1940, he’d infiltrated himself into German-occupied France to set up a spy network. By January of 1941, most of the network had been arrested by the Gestapo.

He and eight others were death-sentenced on May 13 and although the German brass entertained the possibility of clemency as their tribute to an honorable fellow-troop, the growth of partisan attacks against the Reich throughout that summer* eventually dictated a more punitive course. D’Estienne d’Orves, Maurice Barlier, and Jan Doornik were fusilladed together, disdaining blindfolds.


Proclamation in German and French announcing the August 29, 1941 executions of Henri Louis Honore d’Estiennes d’Orves, Maurice Charles Emile Barlier, and Jan Louis-Guilleaume Doornik.

* Germany’s invasion of the USSR in June 1941 forced European Communist parties — and very notably the formerly reticent French Communists — into violent anti-Nazi resistance.

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1741: John Ury, schoolmaster

Add comment August 29th, 2017 Headsman

Colonial New York’s summer 1741 slave rebellion panic* drew to a close on this date with the execution of the alleged Catholic priest John Ury.

The supposed plot to fire the city, whose reality and extent have been questioned ever since, had seen some 30 souls to the gallows and stakes these past four months after a suspicious series of fires hit the city in the spring.

The original supposed spider at the center of the web of was a white innkeep called John Hughson, who kept a raucous tavern frequented by blacks — and also kept a serving-girl named Mary Burton, the “eyewitness” who would become the inquisitor-judge Daniel Horsmanden‘s faithful familiar throughout the trials, conjuring every new accusation required of the next plot twist.

But even as Hughson was executed in June, the compounding accusations of people in fear of their lives had driven the story past the confines of his humble tavern, all the way to the capitals of the European powers against whom England was fighting a New World naval war. Jill LePore in New York Burning: Liberty, Slavery, and Conspiracy in Eighteenth-Century Manhattan characterizes four Venn-patterned seditions that investigators perceived over the course of these months:

  • Hughson’s Plot, centered on the publican and his establishment;
  • The Negro Plot, extending well beyond Hughson’s circle to compass perhaps the majority of black people in New York;
  • The Spanish Plot, a foreign plan — possibly coordinated with an internal slave rising — to destroy New York or seize her for Spain; and,
  • The Catholic Plot.

It was the last of these, perfectly calibrated for the Anglo id, that would gather all the other strands together. What hand could unite the threats within and without? The priest. Who moved conspiratorially among Englishmen while obeying the dictates of a foreign potentate? The priest. Who gave men the boldness to murder their masters through his promise of absolving worldly sin? The priest.

The confusing — the incoherent — unfolding of trials that summer became marvelously clarified once apprehended as a Catholic intrigue; maybe the only wonder was that this decisive reveal emerged so late. The prosecutor of the trial that concerns us in this post would say as much in his summation:

Though this work of darkness, in the contrivance of a horrible plot, to burn and destroy this city, has manifested itself in many blazing effects, to the terror and amazement of us all; yet the secret springs of this mischief lay long concealed: this destructive scene has opened by slow degrees: but now, gentlemen, we have at length great reason to conclude, that it took its rise from a foreign influence; and that it originally depended upon causes, that we ourselves little thought of, and which, perhaps, very few of the inferior and subordinate agents were intimately acquainted with.

Gentlemen, if the evidence you have heard is sufficient to produce a general conviction that the late fires in this city, and the murderous design against its inhabitants, are the effects of a Spanish and popish plot, then the mystery of this iniquity, which has so much puzzled us, is unveiled, and our admiration ceases: all the mischiefs we have suffered or been threatened with, are but a sprout from that evil root, a small stream from that overflowing fountain of destruction, that has often deluged the earth with slaughter and blood, and spread ruin and desolation far and wide.

It might have been a warning letter sent by governor of Georgia, James Oglethorpe, that prepared this popish cast to events. “Some intelligence I had of a villainous design of a very extraordinary nature, if true, very important, viz. that the Spaniards had employed emissaries to burn all the magazines and considerable towns in the English North-America,” Oglethorpe wrote in May of 1741. And who were these “emissaries”? “Many priests were employed, who pretended to be physicians, dancing-masters, and other such kinds of occupations; and under that pretence to get admittance and confidence in families.”

These few words would prove a death warrant.

Days after Oglethorpe’s letter arrived to New York, a Manhattan newcomer named John Ury was taken up as a suspected undercover priest — appearing to fit Oglethorpe’s description for he had advertised himself a schoolmaster “pretending to teach Greek and Latin.” Latin!

Mary Burton, the Hughsons’ servant turned stool pigeon for all seasons, revised her original depositions averring that she had never seen white people besides her own household at Hughson’s nefarious negro gatherings and now conveniently remembered that this guy named Ury or Jury “used to come there almost every night, and sometimes used to lie there.” And he was Catholicizing the slaves as he inducted them into a spectacular conspiracy. How could I have forgotten to mention it?!

“Corroborating” testimony to this same effect would also be wrenched from the white soldier William Kane … when Mary’s fabrications against Kane forced him to choose between joining his accuser in perjury or joining slaves at the gallows. And the case was cinched by John Hughson’s miserable daughter Sarah, who spent that entire summer suspended between life and death before she was finally pardoned on the very morning of John Ury’s trial — an expedient necessary to clear the reluctant but desperate young woman to provide evidence against the “priest.”

Ury denied being Catholic at all; he defended himself vigorously in a nine-hour trial and clowned his accuser on cross-examination:

Prisoner: You say you have seen me several times at Hughson’s, what clothes did I usually wear?

Mary Burton: I cannot tell what clothes you wore particularly.

Prisoner: That is strange, and [k]now me so well.

Furthermore, Ury noted, he had been forewarned of the suspicions against him but not attempted to flee. Plus, what about all those people who had been executed since May? “The negro who confessed as it is said that he set fire to the fort did not mention me in all his confession doubtless he would not have neglected and passed over such a person as I am said to be … neither Huson his wife nor the creature that was hanged with them and all that have been put to death since did not once name me.”

Show trials are not proper venues for defenses, of course. If anything can be said on behalf of Ury’s appalling prosecution, it is that the production of an arch-villain permitted the final closure of a terrorist-hunt that weeks before had seemed on the verge of becoming a literal hecatomb. Horsmanden’s senior colleague on the bench, James De Lancey, had shown keen to wrap things up; at the same time, as an Atlantic oligarch, he likely viewed the foreign threat of the Spanish and/or Catholic plot far more gravely. From either perspective, Ury’s death was a fit end to the scene.

Ury was hanged on August 29, 1741, a month to the day after his trial. (He was originally to have shared his gallows with the Spaniard Juan de la Silva on August 15, but had been respited.) The freelance teacher turned infernal mastermind prepared a written vindication of himself for a friend, and at the gallows he “repeated somewhat of the substance of it before he was turned of.” Here it is:

Fellow Christians —

I am now going to suffer a death attended with ignominy and pain; but it is the cup that my heavenly father has put into my hand, and I drink it with pleasure; it is the cross of my dear redeemer, I bear it with alacrity; knowing that all that live godly in Christ Jesus, must suffer persecution; and we must be made in some degree partakers of his sufferings before we can share in the glories of his resurrection: for he went not up to glory before he ascended Mount Calvary; did not wear the crown of glory before the crown of thorns.

And I am to appear before an awful and tremendous God, a being of infinite purity and unerring justice, a God who by no means will clear the guilty, that cannot be reconciled either to sin or sinners; now this is the being at whose bar I am to stand, in the presence of this God, the possessor of heaven and earth, I lift up my hands and solemnly protest I am innocent of what is laid to my charge: I appeal to the great God for my non-knowledge of Hewson [sic], his wife, or the creature that was hanged with them, I never saw them living, dying, or dead; nor never had I any knowledge or confederacy with white or black as to any plot; and upon the memorials of the body and blood of my dearest lord, in the creatures of bread and wine, in which I have commemorated the love of my dying lord, I protest that the witnesses are perjured; I never knew the perjured witnesses but at my trial.

But for the removal of all scruples that may arise after my death I shall give my thoughts on some points.

First — I firmly believe and attest, that it is not in the power of man to forgive sin; that it is the prerogative only of the great God to dispense pardon for sins; and that those who dare pretend to such a power, do in some degree commit that great and unpardonable sin, the sin against the Holy Spirit, because they pretend to that power which their own consciences proclaim to be a lie.

Again, I solemnly attest and believe, that a person having committed crimes that have or might have proved hurtful or destructive to the peace of society, and does not discover the whole scheme, and all the persons concerned with them, cannot obtain pardon from God: and it is not the taking any oath or oaths that ought to hinder him from confessing his guilt, and all that he knows about it; for such obligations are not only sinful, but unpardonable, if not broken: now a person firmly believing this, and knowing that an eternal state of happiness or misery depends upon the performance or non-performance of the above-mentioned things, cannot, will not trifle with such important affairs.

I have not more to say by way of clearing my innocence, knowing that to a true Christian unprejudiced mind, I must appear guiltless; but however, I am not very solicitous about it. I rejoice, and it is now my comfort (and that will support me and protect me from the crowd of evil spirits that I must meet with in my flight to the region of bliss assigned me) that my conscience speaks peace to me.

Indeed, it may be shocking to some serious Christians, that the holy God should suffer innocence to be slain by the hands of cruel and bloody persons; (I mean the witnesses who swore against me at my trial), indeed, there may be reasons assigned for it; but, as they may be liable to objections, I decline them; and shall only say, that this is one of the dark providences of the great God, in his wise, just and good government of this lower earth.

In fine, I depart this waste, this howling wilderness, with a mind serene, free from all malice, with a forgiving spirit, so far as the gospel of my dear and only redeemer obliges and enjoins me to, hoping and praying, that Jesus, who alone is the giver of repentance, will convince, conquer and enlighten my murderers’ souls, that they may publicly confess their horrid wickedness before God and the world, so that their souls may be saved in the day of the Lord Jesus.

And now, a word of advice to you, spectators: behold me launching into eternity; seriously, solemnly view me, and ask yourselves severally, how stands the case with me? die I must: am I prepared to meet my Lord when the midnight cry is echoed forth? shall I then have the wedding garment on? Oh, sinners! trifle no longer; consider life hangs on a thread; here to-day and gone to-morrow; forsake your sins ere ye be forsaken forever: hearken, now is God awfully calling you to repent, warning you by me, his minister and prisoner, to embrace Jesus, to take, to lay hold on him for your alone savior, in order to escape the wrath to come; no longer delay, seeing the summons may come before ye are aware, and you standing before the bar of a God who is consuming fire out of the Lord Jesus Christ, should be hurled, be doomed to that place, where their worm dies not, and their fire is never to be quenched.

* Longtime readers may recall that the series to which this post belongs ran last year. Embarrassingly I lost track of the date, and in the almanac form the calendar is unforgiving.

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1783: William Wynne Ryland, court engraver

Add comment August 29th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1783, British engraver William Wynne Ryland hanged at Tyburn* before a throng of gallows-voyeurs such as “had not been seen on a like occasion since the execution of Dr. Dodd.” (Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser, Aug. 30, 1783)

“[H]is evil genius prompted him, for gold, to debase his talents in engraving,” the Newgate Calendar opined. “By one fatal act, he entirely ruined his reputation as a man: but his name as an artist will ever stand in the highest estimation.”

French- and Italian-trained, Ryland was a premier court artist in his day, noted for importing stipple engraving from the continent to England. He earned a royal pension for his portraits of Hanoverian elites.


Some Ryland portraiture, from the National Portrait Gallery: King George III and his queen, Sophia Charlotte.

Although Ryland’s first attempt to parlay his draftsmanship into a print-selling business had gone bankrupt in 1771, he does not seem to have been entirely neglected by the muse of business acumen, either. Over the subsequent decade he had discharged all his previous debts and stockpiled assets to the amount of £10,000. “I am rich beyond temptation,” he protested to the jurors who tried him for his life. The Crown could produce little in the way of an immediate motive for the forgery. (“It is impossible for us to penetrate so far into the heart of man as to know what his inducements are.”)

But lucre is its own motivation, and the facts of the case weighed heavily against Ryland.

He had come into (legitimate) possession of £200 bill of exchange issued by the East India Company and dated October 5, 1780. Somehow it transpired that Ryland then exchanged two copies of this bill — one on September 19, 1782 with the banker Sir Charles Asgill, and then once again on November 4, 1782 to a banking firm with the Dickensian name of Ransom & Co.

Both bills were identical to every inspection, with the same amount, date, and cheque number, and Ryland the expert engraver could give no convincing account of the second note’s provenance. In the public’s mind, the fact that he had fled the indictment and then dramatically attempted suicide when his capture was imminent surely cinched the case.

Ryland’s attempts to inspire in the jurors a sufficient doubt as to whether the East India Company might not have accidentally circulated two identical bills was fatally undone when it turned out that a difference between the two bills could be found after all — by the paper manufacturer, who proved to the court that the second bill was inscribed on paper whose watermark established that did not exist on its purported date of issue.

this sheet of paper was made at the mill, on that particular mould, it has a defect on it; on the 21st of January, 1782, of the same mould of which this note is now shewn me, I made this sheet of paper; there is a defect of the mould, either by an injury it has received, or in consequence of the quantity of paper made on it, the bill has the same defect; and there is likewise a defect which the bill has not, so that the sheet of paper on which the bill was written, was made from that mould. This could not happen in the same places, and situations in any two moulds.

The jury needed only half an hour to convict him.

By the Morning Chronicle and London Advertiser‘s account, he was London’s star attraction on his hanging day.

At half past nine a man on the steps of newgate called out, “Mr. Ryland’s coach,” upon which a mourning-coach, that was standing opposite the Sessions-house, drew up to the door of the prison, and in about two minutes after the unhappy man walked down the steps at a brisk pace, and entered the vehicle; presently after which [fellow condemned prisoner John] Lloyd went into another mourning coach. The Ordinary of Newgate, another clergyman, a gentleman in mourning, (said to be a relation of he convict’s) and a sheriff’s Officer, went in the coach with Mr. Ryland …

These coaches, which immediately followed the Sheriffs’ carriages, having drawn a few yards from the door of the prison, two carts were drawn up; [James] Brown, [Thomas] Burgess, and [John] Edwards were tied in the first, as was [James] Rivers in the last cart …

The gallows was fixed about 50 yards nearer the park wall than usual. About five minutes before 11 o’clock, Ryland’s coach drew on the right of the gallows, as did Lloyd’s on the left; and between them the cart; soon after which a violent storm of thunder, lightning, and rain came on, when the Sheriffs gave orders for a delay of the execution. When the storm had subsided, and some time had been employed in prayer, Rivers was lifted from one into the other cart, which backing to Lloyd’s coach, he alighted therefrom, and entered the vehicle, and after the ropes had been fixed about the necks of these unfortunate men, Ryland stepped from the coach to join his unhappy fellow sufferers. After a conversation of at least ten minutes between Ryland and Mr. Villette, Ordinary of Newgate, and the same time employed in an earnest discourse between Lloyd and Burgess, all the malefactors joined in singing the hymn, called, “The Sinners Lamentation”


Editor’s note: I’m not certain whether this is the hymn alluded to.

Ryland was the object that attracted the general attention, from Newgate to Tyburn, the sound that reverberated from every quarter, amidst the immense multitude was, “Which is ryland? There, that is Ryland in the first coach!” Exclusive of the usual accommodations, a vast number of temporary stages were erected; and gentlemens and hired carriages were innumerable. Some rooms, for accommodating private companies, were actually let at the enormous rate of from six to ten guineas.

Notwithstanding the vast press of the crowd, amidst the astonishing number of horsemen, carriages, and people on foot, we have not heard that any body was materially hurt, though many were forced down and trod on.

Ryland was in mourning, and wore a tail wig … Through the whole of this trying scene [he] conducted himself with remarkable serenity and fortitude, strongly indicating that he was prepared for, and perfectly reconciled to his fate.

The wheel of fortune turning against the mighty — especially when they should hazard their lives for a needless pittance — being irresistible to other artists, Ryland is the title character of a a comedic play.

* One of the very last hangings at Tyburn.

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1865: Gerardo Barrios, Salvadoran statesman

Add comment August 29th, 2014 Headsman

August 29 is a National Day of Commemoration in El Salvador, honoring the execution on this date in 1865 of the country’s beloved ex-president Gerardo Barrios.

Today, you’ll find Barrios (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) entombed adjacent Francisco Morazan, an apt deposition for both those great statesmen of Central American union. Barrios was just old enough — he enlisted at age 14 — to have served in Morazan’s army of the United Provinces of Central America, the abbreviated political expression of a wonderful vision for Spain’s former possessions. “This magnificent location between the two great oceans,” Bolivar once enthused of Central America,

could in time become the emporium of the world. Its canals will shorten the distances throughout the world, strengthen commercial ties with Europe, America, and Asia, and bring that happy region tribute from the four quarters of the globe. Perhaps some day the capital of the world may be located there, just as Constantine claimed Byzantium was the capital of the ancient world.

El Salvador was the capital of this prospective emporium, and not only in the sense that its government met at San Salvador.* As the “provinces” of Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica pursued more autonomy and, eventually, outright independence, El Salvador was also the bastion of support for the failing union. It’s where Morazan fell back to as the United Provinces fractured, and it’s where he landed to mount a doomed reunification campaign.

Gerardo Barrios, come to political maturity as well as to manhood in Morazan’s service, was a Senator by the time the union ended. He followed Morazan into exile, and he raised a battalion for the abortive restoration attempt that cost Morazan his life.

After Morazan’s execution, Barrios increasingly became the key leader of remaining unionist aspirations, which also meant leadership of El Salvador’s liberal faction. This was the country — independent at last because all her sister provinces had declared independence from her — that Gerardo Barrios assumed leadership of in 1859,** a generation on from Morazan’s execution. Actual political reunification of the former provinces was by then as distant and gauzy a dream as Bolivar’s Byzantium; perhaps their most noteworthy common-purpose act in the meantime had been the coordinated defeat of American filibuster William Walker, an operation for which Barrios provided essential behind-the-scenes diplomacy.

So Barrios’s executive tenure would be a crucial period of state-building for Nicaragua: building up roads, schools, and other pillars of civil infrastructure; professionalizing the army; promulgating a comprehensive legal code; and economic development.†

It is from this farsighted era that Barrios won lasting fame as his country’s great statesman. And crowning the period with martyrs’ laurels has surely not done his reputation a bit of harm. His regional rivalry with the Guatemalan caudillo Rafael Carrera broke out into war in 1863, which quickly pulled in Honduras (on the side of El Salvador) and Nicaragua and Costa Rica (on the side of Guatemala). The populist Carrera, Guatemala’s “supreme and perpetual leader for life,” had been the central anti-unionist and anti-liberal figure dating back to the Morazan era, and besides his international alliances he gained the support in 1863 of Salvadoran Catholic clergy opposed to the secularization part of Barrios’s modernizing project. Finally encircled by his enemies in a besieged San Salvador in October of that year, Barrios was once again forced into exile.

Carrera died on April 14, 1865‡ and with the passing of the local hegemon Barrios — by now cooling his heels in Panama — saw an opportunity to regain leadership of his country. But the attempted rising that was to augur his re-entry into El Salvador came to nothing, and Barrios realizing the failure turned around to return to Panama almost as soon as he had arrived. Alas for him, a storm grounded his schooner in Nicaraguan waters.

Nicaragua extradited Carrera back to his native soil, albeit with an arrangement that the prisoner — who had been declared a traitor in absentia during his exile — would not face the death penalty. Once the man was in hand, El Salvador reneged on that part of the agreement and subjected Barrios to a military trial. “Today Duenas pronounces my sentence,” Barrios observed of his successor and enemy late the night of August 28, when the tribunal condemned him to be shot just hours thereafter. “But tomorrow I receive the verdict of history.”

The latter judgment has been an unmitigated victory for our man. His life is taught to schoolchildren and his image has graced the Salvadoran currency repeatedly. Two Salvadoran towns (Gerardo, and Barrios) are named in his honor, and many others have streets or plazas that bear his name, including a huge one in the center of San Salvador, ornamented with a monumental equestrian statue of its namesake.


(cc) image from Bradier044 of the Barrios statue in San Salvador’s Plaza Gerardo Barrios, also known as Plaza Civica.

* San Salvador, which is the present-day capital of El Salvador, was the capital of the United Provinces from 1834. Prior to that time, the capital was Guatemala City.

** Barrios had also been president on a brief interim basis for a few months in 1858.

† If you enjoy brewing a morning pot of El Salvador’s top agricultural export, coffee beans, tip your mug to Barrios: he’s credited with introducing coffee cultivation in the country.

‡ The same date John Wilkes Booth shot Abraham Lincoln.

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2007: John Joe “Ash” Amador

4 comments August 29th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 2007, John Joe “Ash” Amador died of lethal injection in Texas.

Amador, age 18, and a 16-year-old cousin, hailed a taxi in San Antonio in the dark predawn hours of January 4, 1994, directed it on a long drive to a dark street in Poteet, Texas, and abruptly shot the cabbie in the head with a .25 caliber handgun. Amador’s cousin shot the cab driver’s ride-along companion.

It’s possible to get unusually up close and personal with Amador — both the man himself, and the gears of the death penalty process at the anticlimax of 13 long years.

To begin with, journalist Dave Maass interviewed Ash Amador a month before the latter’s execution, and posted 52 minutes of audio on Archive.org.

And in a more outre vein, a team of British filmmakers crafted a surreal and digressive but frequently touching documentary of Amador’s end, most especially through the eyes of the condemned man’s wife and family. As Maass put it, they’ve “given the man one wicked afterlife.”

If that teaser intrigues, the entire documentary is freely available online here — complete with an amazing scene of a death mask being cast from the freshly-executed, just-body-bagged Ash.

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1890: Otto Leuth

1 comment August 29th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1890 at the Columbus Penitentiary in Ohio, a sullen German-American teenager named Otto Leuth (sometimes spelled “Lueth”) paid with his life for the brutal murder of his seven-year-old neighbor, Maggie Thompson.

John Stark Bellamy II, writing of the murder in his book The Corpse in the Cellar: And Further Tales of Cleveland Woe, noted how familiar the case sounds to modern ears:

[T]he sickening murder of an innocent child; yet another child accused for the dreadful deed; a sensational trial, replete with dubiously “expert” testimony, suspicious “confessions,” allegations of police “third-degree” methods, and charges of biased press; not to mention “latchkey” children, systematic child abuse, saccharine sympathy for the guilty, and charges of ethnic favoritism.

Yet it happened over a century ago.

Otto, sixteen at the time he killed little Maggie Thompson, had had a hard life, as Bellamy explains in his book. His mother, Lena, testified at his trial that she

went into veritably demonic fits of rage, during which she was in the habit of physically abusing her children, especially Otto. From an early age, she blandly admitted, she had pulled his hair, kicked him, beaten him, walked on him, and often hit him with any object that came to hand. Once, when Otto was eight, she had beaten him with a chair leg and, when [Otto’s father] Henry tried to intervene, stabbed Henry twice with a convenient butcher knife. Just a few months before Maggie Thompson’s murder, Lena had repeatedly slammed Otto’s head into a wooden door.

It speaks volumes of the difference between that century and this one that nobody who heard Lena’s testimony seemed to think this was in any way excessive, never mind cruel; on the contrary, one person praised her methods as being “good German discipline.”

On May 9, 1889, sixteen-year-old Otto was alone at his family’s home at 47 Merchant Avenue in Tremont, a suburb of Cleveland. He was used to being alone: his mother had been committed to a mental hospital some months before, his father was wrapped up in his cabinet-making business, and his older brother had moved out of the house.


Otto (top) and his victim.

That morning, down the street at 24 Merchant Avenue, Maggie Thompson set off for school. Her mother, Clara, dropped her off at the front gate; it was the last time she would see her daughter alive.

Maggie attended the morning classes and, when school was dismissed for lunch at 11:15 a.m., started on the four-block walk home. En route, she vanished without a trace, as if “the sidewalk might have opened and swallowed the girl.”

Naturally there was a frantic search, lead by her devastated parents and the Cleveland Police Department, who tore the city apart looking for her.

But, although there were numerous false sightings and a few wild stories about Maggie’s disappearance, in spite of everyone’s efforts they couldn’t find her.

Otto participated in the search, along with most of the neighborhood. Nearly every day he would approach Clara Thompson and solicitously ask if she’d heard any news of her child.

In early June, Clarissa Shevel, the woman who lived with her husband in the back of the Lueths’ two-family house, asked Otto to do something about the terrible stench that pervaded the entire building. Otto suggested the odor was caused by a dead animal. He bought some chloride of lime and put it in the ventilation hole, then burned some sulfur, but it didn’t help.

Around that time he was witnessed carrying some badly stained bedding to the smokehouse at the back of the property.

On June 9, Otto’s mother Lena, who had by now been discharged from the mental hospital, became fed up with the smell and sent her husband Henry down to the cellar to investigate. He came back up a few minutes later, deeply shaken, and ran out to find a policeman.

In the Lueths’ cellar was the nude corpse of Maggie Thompson.

She was wrapped in one of Lena’s dresses and her own clothes lay underneath her. She had been beaten to death and her body was so badly decomposed that her parents had to identify her by scars on her hips.

The police promptly arrested everyone who lived at the house: Henry and Lena Lueth, Clarissa Shevel and her husband, and Otto, who was picked up on his way home from the ice cream parlor. All five suspects were separated and subjected to a serious “sweating,” but Otto was the prime suspect. He had a reputation as a bully, and he’d been at home alone for much of the previous month.

Bellamy records:

The climax came at 3:30 a.m., when an agonized female shriek resounded from the floor below the sweating room. “Who is that?” cried Otto to Detective Francis Douglass. “Your mother, I believe,” replied Douglass. “She had nothing to do with it!” blurted out Otto. “Who did?” queried Douglass. Otto: “I did it! I did it!” Douglass: “Did what, Otto?” “I killed her! I killed her! Please give me your revolver so I can kill myself!”

Resisting the temptation, the police instead took his verbal confession, wrote it down, had him sign it and escorted him to a cell.

Otto said he had been standing outside his parents’ home at about 11:30 a.m. on May 9 when he encountered Maggie. She asked him if he could donate any buttons to the “button-string” she was making, and he said he had four and would give them to her if she came inside.

Maggie obediently followed him in, and he led her upstairs to his bedroom, where he attempted to rape her. When she screamed, he hit her with a nearby hammer.

Otto said he thought he’d probably killed her with the first blow, but he kept striking her until her head was a pulp and the bed was covered in blood. After an unsuccessful attempt to have sex with her body, he fled the scene. He did go back to the house that night, but spent the next several days at his brother’s home.

Six days later, just before his mother was supposed to come home, Otto returned home to clean up. He carried Maggie’s corpse to the family cellar and left it lying there; he didn’t even bother to bury it or cover it up.

Given Otto’s confession, the circumstantial evidence and the revulsion his crime invoked in the city of Cleveland, his lawyer didn’t have much to work with. Not even trying for an acquittal, his defense instead claimed Otto was mentally impaired and/or insane.

Otto had a strange depression in his skull and his attorney suggested he was brain-damaged — which might very well have been true, given the abuse he had suffered at Lena’s hands. Several members of his family, including his mother and brother, had epilepsy, and his attorney suggested he might have had a seizure and committed his crime without even knowing what he was doing.

Such a scenario was possible. The problem was, though, that none of the medical experts who testified for the defense could diagnose Otto with epilepsy.

The claims of subnormal intelligence were contradicted by the testimony of Otto’s former teachers. Although his pathetic attempts to conceal Maggie’s body might indicate otherwise, his intellect seems to have been about average. Before he quit school at age 13, he had been an unexceptional student with some talent as a violinist.

Otto’s lawyer also said his client had not, in fact, attempted to sexually assault Maggie Thompson either before or after death, and Otto had invented that part of his confession because the police were pressing him to cough up an explanation for his motiveless crime. But given the fact that Maggie’s body was found naked, this claim didn’t carry much weight either.

It was no surprise that, when the trial concluded on December 27, 1889, the jury came back with a verdict of guilty without a recommendation of mercy. Perhaps the only surprising thing was that they actually bothered to deliberate for a whole four and a half hours.

Otto rapidly exhausted his appeals and was hanged eight months after his trial, alongside another killer, one John “Brocky” Smith of Cincinnati. Two other men had also been scheduled to die that night, but one got reprieved and the other’s execution was postponed.

Otto left behind a statement where he admitted he’d killed Maggie Thompson, but denied his previous claims that he’d tried to rape her. He died calmly and without a fuss, standing on the trap and saying simply “All right, let her go.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Ohio,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Torture,USA

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1541: Cristóvão da Gama, Portuguese crusader in Ethiopia

Add comment August 29th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1541, Cristóvão da Gama — “the most chivalrous soldier of a chivalrous age” — was beheaded in Ethiopia.

This moment was the apex of Lisbon’s empire-building, most vividly symbolized by Cristovao’s famous dad, explorer Vasco de Gama. In the Age of Discovery, Caravels bore Portuguese colors from Brazil to Japan.

Alas, Portugal’s global maritime empire of coastal colonies and remote ports was immediately menaced by rival powers like the also at-its-apex Ottoman Empire.

Young Cristovao would be ground up in this conflict whose mixture of geopolitics and sectarianism overtly smacked of those old-time Crusades.

After a jaunt to India in the train of his older brother, appointed the Portuguese governor of India, Cristavao was sidetracked on a return voyage for an intervention on the Christian side in a raging local war. For Europeans who for generations had trafficked in the vague and fantastical rumors of mythical Abyssinian ruler “Prester John”, putting a thumb on the scale for Ethiopian Christians against the rampant Arabs must have been nigh irresistible.

Let’s listen in.

Joao III and his government, faced with mounting debts as the costs of military operations in the East steadily grew, were now forced to re-evaluate their global commitments … the new viceroy, Estevao da Gama, was ordered to destroy the Turkish fleet in Suez …

Estevao da Gama’s raid into the Red Sea became one of the best remembered episodes in the history of the Portuguese Estado da India. The fleet assembled at Massawa on the African shore and then proceeded to Suakin which was burnt and plundered. Part of the fleet then returned to Massawa while the rest sailed on to Suez where the Turkish ships proved to be securely based and inaccessible. On the shore of Sinai, as close to Jerusalem as the Portuguese were ever to come, Estevao da Gama enacted some of the rituals of crusading chivalary and made a number of knights before returning to Massawa. Meanwhile, Dom Joao de Castro, who accompanied the expedition, used the time to produce his famous guide to the Red Sea, the Roteiro do Mar Roxo, complete with the meticulous drawings of the ports and anchorages, a masterpiece of Portuguese Renaissance geography and science.


One of Joao de Castro’s drawings. (Source, a Portuguese pdf)

Meanwhile the Portuguese at Massawa had suffered extreme privations and a hundred of them had deserted, having been persuaded by [untrustworthy Potuguese-descended Ethiopian ambassador Joao] Bermudes of the richness and wealth of the interior. Their fate was to be captured and massacred by Ahmed Gran. Estevao da Gama now dispatched a force of four hundred soldiers under the command of his brother, Cristovao da Gama, into the interior to assist the Ethiopian king. Cristovao da Gama advanced from the coast with a force much the same size as that which Cortez had led into Mexico in 1519. He had with him horses, arquebuses and eight small cannon. His first objective was to link up with the fugitive Ethiopian king and his followers, but da Gama got separated from his supplies and was forced to fight a superior Somali force supported by Turkish mercenaries. The result was catastrophe. The small Portuguese army was badly mauled and da Gama himself fled wounded from the battlefield and was taken prisoner.

The capture of the viceroy’s brother, son of the great admiral, carried with it huge importance for the Turks. After being ritually humiliated (his beard being set on fire and his face buffeted with the shoes of his negro servant) Cristovao da Gama was beheaded.* For the Portuguese this was a disaster, the symbolic significance of which far transcended the military consequences of the defeat. However, the Christian church had long experience of turning catastrophe into triumph and, soon after the news of Cristovao da Gama’s death reached the outside world, rumours of miracles began to circulate.** Da Gama became one of the first martyrs of the new church overseas which in a hundred years of expansion had had all too few heroic deeds to celebrate.

After the death of their commander fewer than two hundred of the original army survived, but they were able to meet up with the Christian Ethiopian forces and, when the next campaigning season started in 1542, the combined army inflicted a heavy defeat on the Muslims, a defeat which took on a decisive complexion when it was realised that the leader of the jihad, Ahmed Gran, had been killed in the battle.

Da Gama’s expedition had been mounted from the resources of the official empire and had been commanded by one of the leading fidalgos of the Estado da India. However, few of da Gama’s soldiers returned to India Instead they settled in Ethiopia and married Ethiopian women, establishing a ‘Portuguese’ community that mirrored the ‘Portuguese’ communities in Aythia, Bengal, Kongo and elsewhere where soldiers had offered their military expertise to local rulers an had been content to settle and make their fortures far removed from the jurisdiction of the Portuguese Crown.

Although da Gama’s own end was unfortunate, his surviving force’s exploits on a side badly pressed could arguably be considered the decisive factor enabling Christianity to survive in Ethiopia’s highlands interior. Prester John would have been proud.

* “I write what I heard, it may well be that it was thus, for all that is barbarous and cruel about the Moorish king can be believed. The body, after death, was dismembered and sent to various places … because once when Granha was speaking with Dom Christovao, he asked him: ‘If you had me in your power, as I have you, what would you do to me?’ Dom Christovao, with great resolution and freedom replied, ‘If I had you in my power, I would have you killed, the head I would send to one place and the quarters I would distribute to other places’ (naming them, but I do not recall them). And Granha, they say that it was because he heard this, scattered the body to various places.”

** “Directly they cut off his head, God worked a great and manifest miracle through it, which was, that in the place where they slew him a fountain of running water gushed out, which had never been seen before: its water, through the goodness and power of God, gives sight to the blind, and cures those ill of other diseases. It appears that this miracle is like the one that God did in Rome for His Apostle St. Paul. The remains of the body of D. Christovao smell sweetly, giving forth so delightful an odour, that it seems rather of heaven than of earth.”

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Ethiopia,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Portugal,Power,Religious Figures,Soldiers,Somalia,Wartime Executions

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1938: Bela Kun, Hungarian Communist leader

2 comments August 29th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1938 — so the Soviet government finally announced in 1989, after decades of opacity — the Hungarian Communist leader Bela Kun was secretly shot by firing squad in the gulag.

The pudgy and pugnacious* onetime journalist whose capture by the Russians during World War I enabled him to get in on the ground floor with the Bolshevik Revolution became the de facto leader of the short-lived Hungarian Soviet Republic. For a few months in 1919, it was the world’s second Soviet state after Russia itself.

Bela Kun’s moment in the sun was particularly notorious for his advocacy late in the Soviet Republic’s brief life of a Red Terror against internal opposition. Several hundred people were killed over the last few weeks of the state’s existence, until a Romanian invasion toppled the reds and sent Bela Kun fleeing back to the Soviets. There, he’s supposed to have brought his gift for wholesale murder to surrendered White prisoners in the Crimea.

Still, Hungary was an insurrectionary success next to most everywhere else, and Bela Kun was detailed to Germany to revive the flagging fortunes of a revolution that the Bolsheviks thought would be critical to sustaining their own. Modeling on Lenin’s own coup d’etat in 1917, Kun pushed the Germans to go all-in on an aggressive 1921 “March Action” offensive to capture state power — which backfired catastrophically, essentially marking the end of the post-World War I revolutionary window. Vladimir Ilyich gave his Magyar counterpart a dressing-down for that gambit at that summer’s Comintern summit.

He’d become associated in this time with Zinoviev, an Old Bolshevik whose comradeship would blow an ill wind come the killing time of the 1930s. Kun himself was long past his sell-by date at this stage, knocking around Moscow feuding with other Hungarian exiles.

Stalin eventually had him arrested for “Trotskyism”, and he disappeared into the Gulag never to be seen again.

Like many purge victims, Bela Kun was rehabilitated under Khrushchev, which also made him fitting source material for statuary congenial to the post-World War II Hungary, situated (however unhappily) within Moscow’s sphere. Some of the detritus of this age can be found at Budapest’s Mememto Park outdoor fairgrounds of discarded Communist kitsch.


Bela Kun, marshaling the Magyar masses. The streetlamp behind him (a literary symbol of hanging) alludes to his martyrdom. Wider views of the entire monument: 1 | 2

* He had a rep in his youth for fighting duels.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,History,Hungary,Infamous,Jews,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Russia,Shot,USSR

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1906: Zinaida Konoplyannikov, assassin

1 comment August 29th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1906, less than three weeks after she had assassinated tsarist general Georgiy Alexandrovich Min (Russian biography), revolutionary Zinaida Vasilevna Konoplyannikov was hanged at Schlisselburg fortress near St. Petersburg.

Konoplyannikov is mostly noted in Russian sources online (for instance, here and here).

The daughter of a soldier and a peasant, she was educated — hardly a given for a low-born girl in the late 19th century — and taught in the Baltics and St. Petersburg around the turn of the century. By her profession, the plight of her similarly unprivileged students helped radicalize her.

She had a couple arrests for the usual subversive stuff (distributing illicit propaganda and the like) during Russia’s brief flowering towards liberalism in the 20th century’s early years. Those years would be bloodily reversed as tsarism reasserted itself after the revolutionary moment of 1905.

Konoplyannikov avenged herself on one of the great villains (from her standpoint) of that reversal, G.A. Min — commander of the Semenyovsky Life Guards regiment which bloodily bombarded Moscow’s Red Presnia working-class district to crush the last bastion of revolutionary sentiment in December 1905 at the cost of more than 1,000 lives.

Konoplyannikov gunned him down at a Peterhof train station the following August; in a closed military courtroom (giving her no opportunity to use the trial as an oratorical platform), the assassin was condemned to hang in less than an hour.

She was reported to have died calm, sure in the approaching victory of her cause:

the history of the Russian nation is a record of blood … the autocratic and bureaucratic structures are maintained only by violence … You cannot build anything upon the place of the old without first destroying the old. If it is impossible to catch ideas with bayonets, it is also impossible to resist bayonets with ideas only …

No repressions, no arrests, no prisons, no exiles, no shootings, no punitive expeditions, no pogroms, will stop the rising national movement.

I die with one thought: forgive me, forgive me, my people! I have so little to give you — only this, my life. I die full of faith in what will come … when the throne will crumble, and over the Russian plain, a broad, bright sun of freedom arise.

According to Abraham Ascher, Min’s assassination so spooked Tsar Nicholas II that for a time he refused to leave his room … a evocative and emblematic summary of the Romanov dynasty’s ultimately fatal dilemma.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Assassins,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Murder,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Women

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1966: Sayyid Qutb

1 comment August 29th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1966, author and intellectual Sayyid Qutb was hanged for plotting to overthrow the Egyptian state.

Qutb — whose names can be transliterated many ways (Saïd, Syed, Seyyid, Sayid, or Sayed; Koteb, Kotb, Qutub or Kutb) — was one of the most influential Islamist thinkers of the 20th century, and helped shape the ideas of Osama bin Laden.

A traditionally-minded Muslim civil servant in a westernizing Egypt, Qutb’s journey to radicalism is traditionally dated to his late 1940’s study abroad in the U.S. at what is now the University of Northern Colorado, where the decadence, materialism, and lax morality of the global hegemon saw him seeing existential evil in the everyday all around him:

The American girl is well acquainted with her body’s seductive capacity. She knows it lies in the face, and in expressive eyes, and thirsty lips. She knows seductiveness lies in the round breasts, the full buttocks, and in the shapely thighs, sleek legs — and she shows all this and does not hide it.

Qutb left Greeley, Colo., in 1950 with a master’s degree and an intention to mount an Islamic revolution in his home country that would implement sharia and keep shapely thighs safely under wraps. (Qutb never married, bemoaning the scanty pickings of pure fish in the sea. He may have faced the gallows a virgin.)

He hooked up with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, landed in Egypt’s famously savage prisons (future president Anwar Sadat was one of his judges), and the experience of torture hardened his commitment to a vanguard-led revolution. He kept up his prolific writing output, penning perhaps his most notable work, Milestones (the text was later used against him at his capital trial).

Qutb’s release in 1964 was only for a few months, before Egyptian security got wind of a new Muslim Brotherhood plot to overthrow the government and rounded up Qutb as the supposed ringleader — or just railroaded him because it didn’t like where he was going with passages like

there are many practical obstacles in establishing God’s rule on earth, such as the power of the state, the social system and traditions and, in general, the whole human environment. Islam uses force only to remove these obstacles so that there may not remain any wall between Islam and individual human beings.

With the benefit of hindsight, one can readily imagine that his martyr’s death did not squelch his movement, but greatened his stature to admiring eyes.

But it was hardly a direct path into an un-critiqued hall of martyrs in an undifferentiated “radical Islam”. While Qutb had his own influence in Egypt, Cairo has managed to keep the lid on the Muslim Brotherhood. Qutbism, however, was exported to Saudi Arabia — which intentionally imported it for various practical and geopolitical reasons — where it flourished, often in a fractious relationship with official Saudi Wahhabism.

One of Qutb’s students was the uncle of Ayman al-Zawahiri, and the hanged intellectual greatly influenced Zawahiri’s own path into radicalism and to al-Qaeda. Since September 11, of course, the path Qutb himself followed has become of much more pressing interest to the West as well as within the Muslim world.

Some noteworthy works by Sayyid Qutb

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Egypt,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Power,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Torture,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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