1944: The Wola Massacre begins, during the Warsaw Uprising

2 comments August 5th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1944, a weeklong German slaughter of Polish civilians and resistance fighters began in the Wola district of the capital city Warsaw.

The Wola Massacre marked the start of the Reich’s counterattack against the Warsaw Uprising, the heroic and suicidal rising mounted by the Polish Home Army as the Red Army’s summer offensive brought it to the banks of the Vistula.

Aiming to claim some foothold upon which to influence events in the soon-to-be Soviet-occupied Poland, the Home Army enjoyed initial success in the first days of August. But German reserves from the Replacement Army — the vehicle by which the Valkyrie plotters had attempted their coup against Hitler just days before, and now as a consequence answering directly to Heinrich Himmler — were quick to the scene and would turn back the rising in weeks of bloody urban warfare. Himmler’s authority in crushing the Warsaw Uprising would also allow him to give rein to his SS for a campaign of atrocities intended to cow the populace into speedy submission.

Himmler wasn’t a battlefield commander, of course. Chief on the scene would be Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski; for this purpose he would enlist some of the more notorious units on the eastern front, such as the lawless Sonderbataillon Dirlewanger and the “Russian National Liberation Army” of Bronislav Kaminski. They were just the types to implement Himmler’s brutal orders* for a city they were soon to lose anyway:

  1. Captured insurrectionists shall be killed whether or not they fight in accordance with the Hague Convention.
  2. The non-fighting part of the population, women, children, shall also be killed.
  3. The whole city shall be razed to the ground, i.e. its buildings, streets, facilities, and everything within its borders.

The outcome rates as perhaps the largest battlefield massacre of World War II.

On August 5, Bach-Zelewski’s forces began a coordinated push into the western suburb of Wola. Himmler’s orders were implemented immediately, as attested by numerous civilian witnesses and lucky survivors:

I lived in the Wola district at No. 8, Elekcyjna Street. At 10 a.m. on Aug. 5, 1944 a detachment of SS-men and Vlassov’s men entered. They drove us from the cellars and brought us near the Sowinski Park at Ulrychow. They shot at us when we passed. My wife was killed on the spot: our child was wounded and cried for his mother. Soon a Ukrainian approached and killed my two-year-old child like a dog; then he approached me together with some Germans and stood on my chest to see whether I was alive or not – I shammed dead, lest I should be killed too. One of the murderers took my watch; I heard him reloading his gun. I thought he would finish me off, but he went on further, thinking I was dead. I lay thus from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m. pretending to be dead, and witnessing further atrocities. During that time I saw further groups being driven out and shot near the place where I lay. The huge heap of corpses grew still bigger. Those who gave any sign of life were shot. I was buried under other corpses and nea rly suffocated. The executions lasted until 5 p.m. At 9 p.m. a group of Poles came to take the corpses away. I gave them a sign that I was alive. They helped me to get up and I regained sufficient strength to carry with them the body of my wife and child to the Sowinski Park, where they took all the dead. After this sad duty had been performed they took me to St. Laurence’s Church at Wola, where I remained till next day. I cannot state the exact number of the victims, but I estimate that those among whom I lay amounted to some 3,000 (three thousand). I met a friend in the church who had gone through the same experience as I, having lost a boy of 8, who had been wounded and died calling for his father. I am still in hospital and the image of death is constantly before my eyes.

And another:

On August 5, 1944, between 12 and 2 p.m., I saw from a window on the first floor of Wola Hospital Germans dragging women out of the cellars of No. 28, Plocka Street. They shot them in the courtyard with machine-guns. Almost at the same time, I saw in the courtyard of No. 30, Plocka Street the hands of more then 20 people raised and visible over the fence (the people themselves could not be seen). After a volley of shots these hands fell down: this was another of the executions in Wola.

And the agonizing testimony of Wanda Lurie:

I stayed in the cellar of No. 18 until August 5, when, between 11 and 12 noon, the Germans ordered all of us to get out, and marched us to Wolska Street. This march was carried out in dreadful haste and panic. My husband was absent, taking an active part in the Rising, and I was alone with my three children, aged 4, 6 and 12, and in the last month of pregnancy. I delayed my departure, hoping they would allow me to remain, and left the cellar at the very last moment. All the inhabitants of our house had already been escorted to the “Ursus” works in Wolska Street at the corner of Skierniewicka Street, and I too was ordered to go there. I went alone, accompanied only by my three children. It was difficult to pass, the road being full of wire, cable, remains of barricades, corpses, and rubble. Houses were burning on both sides of the street; I reached the “Ursus” work’s with great difficulty. Shots, cries, supplications and groans could be heard from the factory yard. We had no doubt that this was a place for mass executions.

The people who stood at the entrance were led, no, pushed in, not all at once but in groups of 20. A boy of twelve, seeing the bodies of his parents and of his little brother through the half-open entrance door, fell in a fit and began to shriek. The Germans and Vlassov‘s men beat him and pushed him back, while he was endeavouring to get inside. He called for his father and his mother. We all knew what awaited us here; there was no possibility of escape or of buying one’s life; there was a crowd of Germans, Ukrainians (Vlassov’s men), and cars. I came last and kept in the background, continuing to let the others pass, in the hope that they would not kill a pregnant woman, but I was driven in with the last lot. In the yard I saw heaps of corpses 3 feet high, in several places. The whole right and left side of the big yard (the first yard) was strewn with bodies. We were led through the second. There were about 20 people in our group, mostly children of 10 to 12. There were children without parents, and also a paralysed old woman whose son-in-law had been carrying her all the time on his back. At her side was her daughter with two children of 4 and 7. They were all killed. The old woman was literally killed on her son-in-law’s back, and he along with her. We were called out in groups of four and led to the end of the second yard to a pile of bodies. When the four reached this point, the Germans shot them through the backs of their heads with revolvers. The victims fell on the heap, and others came. Seeing what was to be their fate, some attempted to escape; they cried, begged, and prayed for mercy. I was in the last group of four. I begged the Vlassov’s men around me to save me and the children, and they asked if I had anything with which to buy my life. I had a large amount of gold with me and gave it them. They took it all and wanted to lead me away, but the German supervising the execution would not allow them to do so, and when I begged him to let me go he pushed me off, shouting “Quicker!” I fell when he pushed me. He also hit and pushed my elder boy, shouting “hurry up, you Polish bandit”. Thus I came to the place of execution, in the last group of four, with my three children. I held my two younger children by one hand, and my elder boy by the other. The children were crying and praying. The elder boy, seeing the mass of bodies, cried out: “they are going to kill us” and called for his father. The first shot hit him, the second me; the next two killed the two younger children. I fell on my right side. The shot was not fatal. The bullet penetrated the back of my head from the right side and went out through my cheek. I spat out several teeth; I felt the left side of my body growing numb, but I was still conscious and saw everything that was going on around me.

I witnessed other executions, lying there among the dead. More groups of men were led in. I heard cries, supplications, moaning, and shots. The bodies of these men fell on me. I was covered by four bodies. Then I again saw a group of women and children; thus it went on with group after group until late in the evening. It was already quite, quite dark when the executions stopped. In the intervals between the shootings the murderers walked on the corpses, kicked them, and turned them over, finishing off those who still gave any sign of life, and stealing valuables.

German soldiers too recorded wholesale executions in their diaries and correspondence; while the accounts above are all specifically attributable to the 5th of August, those that follow are undated snapshots of environment:

Policemen with rifles under their arms trudged along. All of the police from occupied Poland came together there to show off their bravery and also to enrich themselves on the side. I did not see this activity, but others did. They saw how these policemen executed those from the procession who could not keep up, those who were sick and lagging behind, and right in front of their compatriots. What was particularly troubling about this misery is that unlike in Russia what was occurring was not a matter of a completely poor, and in any event already moaning, mass of people; rather these were people of our own social class, women in fur coats, cute children who up until two days before had been fully cared for. This memory has always caused me anguish during my short stopovers in Warsaw: the look from so many hostile eyes, people of our culture, who knew exactly what I knew. For that reason I was always glad never to have been deployed in the West. And now I stood beside these people in bitter agony, and I was shocked.

Now we arrived at the command post of the SS-commander. There were two buses parked on the right side of the street. We reported to the SS-commander, a medium-built stringent man with a sharply chiseled face. With a cold glance at the procession of women and children that was passing no farther than 10 meters from us, he said, “You see, this is our biggest problem. These refugees! I don’t have enough ammunition to kill them all!” He said this quietly and with a remorseful shrug of the shoulders, this elegant officer with the Iron Cross and pleasant manners. Meanwhile tears fell down my cheeks. What kind of human being was he?

-Hans Thieme

And another:

Before each daily operation I reported to the SS commander. During one visit I witnessed an event, which sickened me to my very core. The SS officer’s office was on the upper floor of a building and had a balcony that overlooked a large courtyard. The SS had lined up near a wall about 40 or so Polish men, women, and children of all ages. I distinctly recall a young woman holding hands with two small children. It was clear to me what was about to happen. I confronted the SS commander as to why these people were about to be shot. His reply was that they were being executed as a reprisal for the Germans that had been killed in the Uprising. He informed me that it was also none of my concern. Shortly, thereafter the hostages were shot before my eyes. I was disgusted by what I had witnessed and after 60 years later it still haunts me.

-Eberhard Schmalz

And another:

I was setting explosives under big doors, somewhere in Old Town. From inside we heard Nicht schiessen! Nicht schiessen! (Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot!). The doors opened and a nurse appeared with a tiny white flag. We went inside with fixed bayonets. A huge hall with beds and mattresses on the floor. Wounded were everywhere. Besides Poles there were also wounded Germans. They begged the SS-men not to kill the Poles. A Polish officer, a doctor and 15 Polish Red Cross nurses surrendered the military hospital to us. The Dirlewangerers were following us. I hid one of the nurses behind the doors and managed to lock them. I heard after the war that she has survived. The SS-men killed all the wounded. They were breaking their heads with rifle butts. The wounded Germans were screaming and crying in despair. After that, the Dirlewangerers ran after the nurses; they were ripping clothes off them. We were driven out for guard duty. We heard women screaming. In the evening, on Adolph Hitler’s Square [now Pilsudzki Square] there was a roar as loud as during boxing fights. So I and my friend climbed the wall to see what was happening there. Soldiers of all units: Wehrmacht, SS, Kaminski’s Cossacks, boys from Hitlerjugend; whistles, exhortations. Dirlewanger stood with his men and laughed. The nurses from the hospital were rushed through the square, naked with hands on their heads. Blood ran down their legs. The doctor was dragged behind them with a noose on his neck. He wore a rag, red maybe from blood and a thorn crown on top of the head. All were lead to the gallows where a few bodies were hanging already. When they were hanging one of the nurses, Dirlewanger kicked the bricks she was standing on.

-Mathias Schenk

A much larger catalogue of atrocity accounts awaits at warsawuprising.org.

The massacre at Wola would run on to about the 13th at which point Bach-Zelewski abated the civilian massacre order as counterproductive: too many soldier-hours needed for focused bloodbaths were being squandered orchestrating gratuitous ones. Nevertheless, weeks of hard urban warfare lay ahead, and policy continued to embrace the summary execution of captured fighters and of all fighting-age men, resistance or no. Some 200,000 civilians are thought to have died during the Warsaw Uprising.

One legacy was eerily and unknowingly captured by a LIFE magazine photographer in 1948, of a young girl in a school for disturbed children in Poland. Her face a scramble of innocence and madness as it peers into the lens, she illustrates her “home” as an incoherent chalk vortex. It wasn’t known until many years after this photo became emblematic of a generation wracked by horror, but “Tereska” — Teresa Adwentowska — was an orphaned survivor of Wola.

* Per Bach-Zelewski’s evidence to the Nuremberg tribunal. By dint of cooperation, he saved his own life from the Nuremberg gallows.

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1549: The Clyst Heath massacre, during the Prayer Book Rebellion

1 comment August 5th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1549 was disgraced in England by one of the bloodiest battlefield atrocities in that realm’s history: the Clyst Heath massacre.

On Whitsunday of that year, two-plus years after the Catholic-except-for-the-Pope king Henry VIII had taken to the grave his restraining orthodoxy, the late king’s reformist archbishop Thomas Cranmer introduced to English churches his magnum opus: the Book of Common Prayer.

Rudely replacing the hodgepodge of old services consecrated by tradition, not to mention the Latin tongue in which they were conducted, with the novel vernacular composition of Anne Boleyn‘s house vicar was not wildly popular in the pews — nowhere less so than in Britain’s western extrusion of Devon and Cornwall, which were as cantankerous as they were Catholic.

Peasants at church that Sunday in those provinces were gobsmacked by the alien English service they heard, and disturbances began almost immediately.

“We wyll have the masse in Latten, as was before,” congregants in the Devon village of Sampford Courtenay petitioned their priest on Whitmonday.

We wyll have … images set up again in every church, and all other ancient olde Ceremonyes used heretofore, by our mother the holy Church.

We wyll not receyve the newe servyce because it is but lyke a Christmas game, but we wyll have oure old service of Mattens, masse, Evensong and procession in Latten as it was before.

When authorities showed up to enforce the Christmas games, there was a riot that saw someone run through with a pitchfork on the steps of the church. The Prayer Book Rebellion was on.

That summer of 1549, Common Prayer resisters in Devon and Cornwall linked up in a rude army, one with no chance at all against the larger and better-armed crown force under Lord Russell — which was reinforced as if to prove the rebels’ fears of foreign doctrinal innovations by Italian arquebusiers and German landsnecht mercenaries.*

At dawn on August 4, rebels mounted an unsuccessful attack on Lord Russell’s encampment near a windmill on Woodbury Common. We turn here to the open-source The Western Rebellion of 1549:

A fierce combat ensued, raging hottest near the windmill. Their first attack repulsed, the rebels renewed their efforts again and again, but —

notwithstanding they were of very stout stomachs and very valiantly did stand to their tackles, yet in the end they were overthrown and the most part of them slain. (Hooker)

Lord Russell’s trained men and his horsemen, at last of real service in the open field, again proved conquerors, though not without loss, for “to the strength, force, and resolution of these commons (the archers especially)” witness was borne by some that felt them. At last the insurgents were forced back on Clyst St. Mary, leaving behind many comrades either dead, dying, or prisoners.

As the insurgents retired from the hill leaving the Royal troops victorious, orders were issued for the assembly to unite in prayer and praise for the God-given victory, and the rough moor became the setting for a strange scene.

Clustering in their companies, their weapons still red with the blood of their opponents, was the mixed multitude: gentlemen with their servants and tenants levied in the surrounding country, recently devout adherents of the faith they were now called upon to exterminate: dark-browed mercenaries, still nominally papists, who later sought absolution for fighting on the behalf of heretics; heavy-jowled “almayns,” countrymen of Luther, whose protestantism varied much from the newly founded English forms; all these surrounded by the dead and dying of the recent fight.

The rebels fell back to Clyst Heath, and on the 5th, Russell’s force again advanced upon them, overcoming only with difficulty a stubborn resistance at the village of Clyst St. Mary. Though victorious in each instance, Russell’s men had had two hard days’ fighting and were sore conscious that they were invaders in hostile country. They had faced potshots from the cover of hedge rows, forays from the rear at their baggage train, and that dawn attack at the windmill. And the two days’ fighting had put some 900 prisoners in their hands.

As twilight fell on August 5, Lord Russell began thinking along the lines of Henry V at Agincourt — that these prisoners were at best an encumbrance for a troop already managing a difficult slog, and at worst a menace who might start butchering their guards should one of these rebel raids scramble his army.

And so Russell issued the expedient, conscience-curdling order.

Ere darkness fell the cries for mercy and the screams of those being murdered rang through the fields and lanes, as each soldier butchered his victim — nor age nor youth was regarded, and the shambles thus created made a terrible blot upon the scutcheon of the Royal forces.

The next day saw the Battle of Clyst Heath, at which the Cornish — having heard of the previous night’s outrage — fought furiously to the last man in a hopeless, savage affray that all but broke the rebellion. By August 16, Russell destroyed their cause for good … back where it all started, at the Battle of Sampford Courtenay. Reprisal raids continued well after the truculent country had been pacified, and some rebel leaders were only hunted down for execution months later.

* England had scads of continental soldiers of fortune knocking about at this moment because it had been hiring to whale on Scotland.

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2008: Jose Medellin, precedent

4 comments August 5th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 2008, Mexican national Jose Medellin was executed by Texas, pleasurably sticking its thumb in the eye of the International Court of Justice.

U.S. state and local officials have often displayed the ugly-American tendency to view binding treaty obligations as a Washington thing of no moment to the likes of a Harris County prosecutor. So when Medellin was arrested for the 1993 rape-murder of two teenage girls in a Houston park, the idea of putting him right in touch with Mexican diplomats to assist his defense was, we may safely suppose, the very farthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Yet under the Vienna Convention, that is exactly what ought to have occurred. The idea is that consular officials can help a fellow on foreign soil to understand his unfamiliar legal circumstances and assist with any measures for his defense — and by common reciprocity, every state is enabled to look after the interests of its nationals abroad.

A widespread failure to do this, in death cases and others, has involved the United States in a number of international spats over the years.

Jose Medellin was among more than 50 Mexican prisoners named in one of the most noteworthy of these: the Avena case, a suit by Mexico* against the United States in the International Court of Justice.

In its March 31, 2004 Avena decision, the ICJ found that U.S. authorities had “breached the obligations incumbent upon” them by failing in these instances to advise the Mexican nationals it arrested of their Vienna Convention rights, and of failing in almost all those cases likewise to advise Mexican representatives that a Mexican citizen had been taken into custody.

“The appropriate reparation in this case,” the 15-judge panel directed, “consists in the obligation of the United States of America to provide, by means of its own choosing, review and reconsideration of the convictions and sentences of the Mexican nationals.”

If you think the Lone Star State’s duly constituted authorities jumped right on that “obligation,” you must be new around here.

Several years before, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions visited the United States and filed a report complaining “that there is a generalized perception that human rights are a prerogative of international affairs, and not a domestic issue.”

“Domestic laws appear de facto to prevail over international law, even if they could contradict the international obligations of the United States,” the Special Rapporteur noted.

Texas, famed for not being messed with, took a dim view indeed to being bossed about from The Hague. Indeed, the very concept of foreign law and international courts is a gleefully-thrashed political pinata among that state’s predominant conservative electorate.

U.S. President George W. Bush — a former Texas governor who in his day had no time at all for appeals based on consular notification snafus — in this instance appealed to Texas to enact the ICJ’s proposed review.† In fact, he asserted the authority to order Texas to do so.

Texas scoffed.

“The World Court has no standing in Texas and Texas is not bound by a ruling or edict from a foreign court,” a spokesman of Gov. Rick Perry retorted.

This notion that America’s federalist governance structure could insulate each of her constituent jurisdictions from treaty obligations undertaken by the nation as a whole naturally seems preposterous from the outside. But in the U.S., this dispute between Washington and Austin was resolved by the Supreme Court — and the vehicle for doing so was an appeal lodged by our man, Medellin v. Texas.

The question at stake in Medellin was whether the treaty obligation was binding domestic law on its own — or if, by contrast, such a treaty required American legislative bodies to enact corresponding domestic statutes before it could be enforced. The high court ruled for the latter interpretation, effectively striking down Avena since there was zero chance of either Texas or the U.S. Congress enacting such a statute.

Medellin, the decision, spelled the end for Medellin, the man — and, at least for now, the end of any prospect of effectual intervention in American death penalty cases by international tribunals.

* Mexico, which no longer has the death penalty itself, has the heavy preponderance of foreign nationals on United States death rows at any given time.

** The Texas Attorney General’s press release announcing Medellin’s execution included a detailed appellate history of the case which pointedly excluded anything that happened in the ICJ.

† The Bush administration did take one effective step to avoid a similarly embarrassing situation in the future: it withdrew the U.S. from the consular notification convention.

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1943: Red Orchestra members, in the Nazi Paradise

Add comment August 5th, 2014 Headsman

From 7 to 8 p.m. on the evening of August 5, 1943 the Fallbeil at Plotzensee Prison destroyed 17 members of the Berlin Red Orchestra resistance circle.

We have touched previously on Die Rote Kapelle in the context of the first 11 executions that claimed its leadership on December 22, 1942.

But the Gestapo had a much wider network than that to break up; ultimately, there would be nearly 50 death sentences associated with Red Orchestra, for activities ranging from outright espionage to merely dissident leafletting, and other rounds of executions had taken place over the preceding months.

The executions this date were more of the sad same, and noteworthy for some sincere and ordinary citizens so sympathetic that even the Reich Military Court recommended mercy for some. Adolf Hitler refused it across the board. The victims, predominantly women who had been moved to Plotzensee for execution that very morning, included

  • Cato Bontjes van Beek, an idealistic 22-year-old ceramicist.
  • Liane Berkowitz. Two days short of her 20th birthday when she was beheaded, Berkowitz had given birth to a child while awaiting execution.
  • Eva-Maria Buch, who translated propaganda leaflets destined for illicit distribution to the forced laborers employed in German munitions factories.
  • Else Imme, an anti-fascist whose sister had emigrated to the Soviet Union.
  • Ingeborg Kummerow.
  • Anna Krauss, a 58-year-old businesswoman.
  • Klara Schabbel, a Comintern agent who in her youth had fought against the French occupation of the Ruhr after World War I.
  • Rose Schlosinger.
  • Oda Schottmuller, a dancer and sculptor who used her arts-related trips to act as a courier.
  • Writer Adam Kuckhoff. His widow Greta would go on to head the East German central bank.
  • Emil Hubner, an 81-year-old retiree, along with his daughter Frida Wesolek and her husband Stanislaus.

Besides the above, at least three others among the condemned in this group paid with their lives for an arts activism attack on Das Sowjetparadies (The Soviet Paradise), a Reich exhibition in May-June 1942 that used photographs and captured artifacts from the war’s eastern front to depict “poverty, squalor and misery” in the USSR. This associated propaganda film gives a taste of the vibe:

The Orchestra orchestrated an “attack” littering the exhibition with counter-propaganda


“Permanent Exhibition
The NAZI PARADISE
War Hunger Lies Gestapo
How much longer?”

This act of wehrkraftzersetzung was a factor in the sentences of —

  • Hilde Coppi, one of the circle’s principal members and the wife of the previously executed Hans Coppi. Like Liane Berkowitz, she was spared the first rounds of executions to bear and nurse her child.
  • Maria Terwiel, a Catholic barrister with a Jewish mother.
  • Ursula Goetze.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Spies,Treason,Wartime Executions,Women

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1993: Joseph Paul Jernigan, Visible Human Project subject

2 comments August 5th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1993, Joseph Paul Jernigan died by lethal injection in Texas. Yet he lives on still.

A career burglar, Jernigan was surprised mid-robbery in 1981 by 75-year-old Edward Hale: the thief promptly shot the homeowner dead, then finished his looting. His life as a free man would be over within days.

As a criminal you wouldn’t much notice Joseph Paul Jernigan — unless it was your house he was burgling, of course — and you wouldn’t exactly call his smash-and-grab act state-of-the-art. But little over a year after his death, Jernigan was making headlines for a groundbreaking scientific project.

Jernigan donated his body to science, joining an ancient tradition of condemned men and women whose bodies are “cadaverized” for whatever medical material is required of their own day and age.

But instead of serving as a med school’s pincushion, “science” in Jernigan’s case turned out to be — Jernigan had no idea of it while he lived — the Visible Human Project.

This National Library of Medicine initiative built a data set of digital images depicting the complete anatomy of a normal adult man and woman: Jernigan’s cadaver was selected for the male lead.

So, after his execution, Jernigan’s entire body was “sliced” from head to foot into 1,871 one-millimeter slides. (The “slicing” process ground away the body completely; it did not literally slice it like salami.)


Joseph Jernigan’s thorax, including the heart. (From here.)

The project is still online, and has never yet been replicated/surpassed with the the advancing technologies of the intervening decades. It’s a weirdly beautiful, unsettling, and ethically questionable artifact — a Smugglerius of the digital age — but it’s also inescapably awe-striking.

So here: take a tour down Joseph Jernigan at the, er, cutting edge of anatomization.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Murder,Texas,USA

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1623: Daniel Frank, the first hanging in the USA

1 comment August 5th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1623 one Daniel Frank was condemned to hang for theft in the Jamestown colony. It was the first hanging to take place in that part of the British North American colonies that eventually broke away as the United States.

Frank is actually not the very first entry in Watt Espy’s encyclopedic 15,000-plus catalogue of “American” executions — he’s the second. In 1608, George Kendall had been shot for a mutinous plot, also in Jamestown, Virginia. We don’t have a firm date for that event.

But rigorous calendaring, like lenient penal theories, took a back seat in the tiny and tenuous New World colony. Jamestown was the successor to Walter Raleigh‘s failed Roanoke settlement, which disappeared without a trace — and planted in harsh and distant environs, Jamestown had a couple of brushes with the very same fate.


Jamestowne, surrounded by Indian settlements and illustrated wilderness. Excerpt from 1608 map of John Smith (yes, the Pocahontas guy) found here.

Still, this was a delicate balance: Jamestown didn’t have the resources to countenance potential recidivism, but it also didn’t have the resources to go killing productive colonists — or scaring away potential productive colonists. A draconian 1612 Laws Divine, Moral and Martial evidently never sent anyone to the gallows, but was rolled back all the same in 1619 for fear of disaffecting investors.

Sithence we are not to bee a little carefull, and our young Cattell, & Breeders may be cherished, that by the preservation, and increase of them, the Colony heere may receive in due time assured and great benefite … so profitable succeeding a Commodity, as increase of Cattel, Kine, Hogges, Goates, Poultrie &c. must of necessity bee granted …

wee do strictly charge and command, that no man shall dare to kill, or destroy any Bull, Cow, Calfe, Mare, Horse, Colt, Goate, Swine, Cocke, Henne, Chicken, Dogge, Turkie, or any tame Cattel, or Poultry, of what condition soever; whether his owne, or appertaining to another man, without leave from the Generall, upon paine of death.

-The 1612 legal code, topically.

Daniel Frank — “Daniell Francke” to ye olde time Virginians — drew a hanging sentence for stealing and killing a calf belonging to George Yeardley, a major landowner and the former (and future) colonial governor of the Virginia terrtory. Frank, we can assume, was in a state of agonizing hunger when he undertook this desperate act.

Though Mr. Espy’s register of historical executions is an astounding resource, double-checking the dates is a recommended practice. In this case, I believe he’s used a highly fragmentary original record (pdf) and mistakenly ascribed the legal proceedings to the last previous date heading, March 1, 1622. [This would be March 1, 1623 by current reckoning; see footnote here.] This date has been repeated by any number of sources.*

But the narration very clearly states that “the tryall of Danyell Francke and George Clarke vppon Tewsday the fyfth of August 1623″ proceeded on the charge of

felonyously steal[ing] and kill[ing] one Calf ye goodes and Chattles of Sr: George Yardley kn[ight] of the woorth and Pryce of three poundes sterling. And after the saide Daniell Francke had killed the said Calfe, Thow the saide George Clarke as Access[orie] to the saide Felony didst help the saide Daniell Fra[nck] to carry the saide Calfe into thy owne house, a[nd] didst helpe to dress eate and spend the same, contrary to the peace of our Sou’ainge Lorde the Ki[ng] his Crowne and Dignitie.

Both men “Receaved sentenc of Death Accordinge to Lawe. Daniell Francke was executed: George Clarke repriued” — either because Clarke was merely an accessory, or as Martha McCartney plausibly speculates, because the gunsmith Clarke was a lot more valuable to the colony than the indentured laborer Francke.

The latter had to make do with his milestone distinction: The first documented hanging in the future US, and the first known execution under normal criminal law.

* My reading of the date is also corroborated (and Espy’s undermined) by a February, 1623 [i.e., 1624] record of the colony’s deaths “since April last.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Public Executions,Theft,Uncertain Dates,USA,Virginia

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1909: Georges-Henri Duchemin, matricide

Add comment August 5th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1909, Georges-Henri Duchemin was guillotined in Paris for murdering his mother. It was the first execution in that city in a decade.

An aimless gadabout, Duchemin mostly sponged off his dear mom, and the filial bond of nature proved insufficiently developed to restrain him strangling the old lady when she held out on him one time.

The ungrateful child made off with a couple hundred francs, but his sister knew right where to direct the police.

His lawyer bid to represent the killer as unbalanced (French link; most of the material on this criminal is in French). The general public horror of parricide and the undisguisedly mercenary nature of the murder made it a no-go.

France had taken a death penalty hiatus of three-plus years from late 1905 to early 1909, under the anti-death penalty president Armand Fallieres. But even those in the first half of the decade had been elsewhere than the capital: Paris hadn’t seen the national razor shave a head since Alfred Peugnez in 1899.


“[Juve] led Fandon just behind the guillotine, to the side where the severed head would fall into the basket. ‘We shall see the poor devil get out of the carriage, and being fastened on to the bascule, and pulled into the lunette.’ He went on talking as if to divert his own mind from the thing before him. ‘That’s the best place for seeing things: I stood there when Peugnez was guillotined, a long time ago now, and I was there again in 1909 when Duchemin, the parricide, was executed.-
-Fantomas

With the new death penalty era in the new century came a new location for the guillotine: just outside La Sante Prison. (The guillotine had formerly been stationed outside La Roquette Prison, but that facility had closed in 1900; today, it’s a park — but look sharp and you can still find the guillotine’s old support stones.)


Le Petit Parisien provided this map to curious onlookers as part of its vast Aug. 5, 1909 coverage of Paris’s biggest crime story of the summer.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Milestones,Murder,Public Executions

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1864: Romuald Traugutt and the January Uprising leaders

Add comment August 5th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1864, the leadership of Poland-Lithuania’s abortive January Uprising against the Russian tsar was hanged before 30,000 at Warsaw Citadel.


Romuald Traugutt depicted (somewhat ironically) on the 20-zloty note of Soviet bloc Poland.

Romuald Traugutt (English Wikipedia link | Polish) had been a decorated Lieutenant Colonel in the Tsarist army, and a heretofore apolitical man — but he resigned shortly after the outbreak of the doomed national uprising to take up sides against Russia.

This installment of the venerable Russians vs. Poles series was characteristically nasty.

In 1863 – Polonia by Jan Matejko, an allegory for the Polish nation is manacled by the Russians.

And it ended the way these affairs have ended these last 400 years or so: Russian victory.

The fallout was severe.

In addition to this day’s batch — Traugutt along with (all Polish Wikipedia links) Rafal Krajewski, Jozef Toczyski, Roman Zulinski and Jan Jezioranski — a further 391 were put to death after the war; tens of thousands were deported to Siberia or otherwise scattered in the vast Romanov empire; a war indemnity tax was imposed; and over three thousand estates in Poland and Lithuania were confiscated.

Traugutt has gained some latter-day support in the Catholic Church for beatification.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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1676: Malin Matsdotter and Anna Simonsdotter, ending a witch hunt

6 comments August 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1676, two starkly contrasting women were executed for sorcery in Stockholm.

Anna Simonsdotter Hack — also known as “Tysk-Annika” — is the forgotten one of the pair, who played the expected role of a condemned witch and meekly gave herself over to the judgment. There were rewards for good behavior: Tysk-Annika had her head cleanly lopped off.

Malin Matsdotter, however, did not plan any reciprocal back-scratching with the men who came to kill her.

Accused by her own daughters of carrying their children — Malin’s grandchildren — to Satanic masses, “Rumpare-Malin” obstinately refused to cop to the charge. (Naturally, not confessing was a further indicator to the court that Satan was fortifying her defiance.) Without a confession, the authorities couldn’t assuage themselves by giving her the easy-ish death of decapitation; the law required burning at the stake.* A sack of gunpowder around the neck to speed things up was the best they could offer her.

Matsdotter maintained her innocence to the stake, frustrating the confessors, and when one of her daughters called on her to admit the crime, “she gave her daughter into the hands of the devil and cursed her for eternity.”

And maybe it worked. Judges may well have been wearying of the eight-year-old witch craze, but Matsdotter’s discomfiting end was the turning point; the cases dried up, existing sentences were overturned, and the clergy was summoned to draw a line under the proceedings by announcing from the pulpits that witches had been driven out of Sweden for good. Only one more witchcraft execution ever took place in Sweden — and that in 1704.

By the end of 1676, several of the most notorious accusers in the witch trials were being hunted for perjury by those very same courtrooms. Reportedly, Matsdotter’s daughter was herself executed for her fatal accusation.

* Previously, the law had not allowed a witchcraft execution without a confession, and in a notable case a few years before Matsdotter’s burning, two other women had escaped death by refusing to confess. Evidently, they closed that loophole.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Sweden,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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