1865: Robert Cobb Kennedy, Confederate terrorist

Add comment March 25th, 2020 Headsman

Robert Cobb Kennedy, the last Confederate executed by the Union during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1865 as an arsonist.


Harper’s magazine illustration of an arsonist.

Kennedy, a West Point washout from a Louisiana plantation, was part of an ensemble of Confederate agents who attempted to torch New York City on November 25, 1864 — a mission designed to revenge Sherman’s march.

On that Friday evening, the night after Thanksgiving, the eight conspirators fired 13 Gotham hotels as well as theaters, public buildings, and the ludicrous museum of showman P.T. Barnum.* Nineteen fires were started overall, the plotters hoping that their simultaneous flaring would overwhelm the city’s capacity to respond and turn into a general conflagration. Through a combination of good luck, bad arson, and timely informants the various blazes were caught before they could do any real damage.

That couldn’t quite be said of the arsonists, who were all — even Kennedy — able to slip away safely to Canada before they could be caught. Kennedy risked a return trip through Detroit hoping to reach Confederate soil. He didn’t make it.

“Mr. Kennedy is a man of apparently 30 years of age, with an exceedingly unprepossessing countenance,” by the description of the New York Times (Feb. 28, 1865) as he stood trial before a military tribunal.

His head is well shaped, but his brow is lowering, his eyes deep sunken and his look unsteady. Evidently a keen-witted, desperate man, he combines the cunning and the enthusiasm of a fanatic, with the lack of moral principle characteristic of many Southern Hotspurs, whose former college experiences, and most recent hotel-burning plots are somewhat familiar to our readers. Kennedy is well connected at the South, is a relative, a nephew we believe, of Howell Cobb, and was educated at the expense of the United States, at West Point, where he remained two years, leaving at that partial period of study in consequence of mental or physical inability. While there he made the acquaintance of Ex. Brig. Gen. E.W. Stoughton, who courteously proffered his services as counsel for his ancient friend in his present needy hour. During Kennedy’s confinement here, while awaiting trial, he made sundry foolish admissions, wrote several letters which have told against him, and in general did, either intentionally or indiscreetly, many things, which seem to have rendered his conviction almost a matter of entire certainty.

He was hanged at Fort Lafayette, having admitted to setting the fire at Barnum’s museum (“simply a reckless joke … There was no fiendishness about it. The Museum was set on fire by merest accident, after I had been drinking, and just for the fun of a scare”). His was the only life claimed by the Confederate incendiaries.

* This facility was born under a bad star: although it survived the ministrations of Kennedy and friends, it burned to the ground the following July. Barnum put up a successor museum which also burned down, in 1868 — leading the man to pivot into the circus industry where he fixed his name in the firmament.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Milestones,New York,Terrorists,USA,Wartime Executions

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1966: Leftists during the Guatemalan Civil War

Add comment March 6th, 2020 Headsman

The declassified CIA cable that follows (original here) captures an extrajudicial execution of leftists during Guatemala’s long dirty war.

The following Guatemalan Communists and terrorists were executed secretly by Guatemalan authorities on the night of 6 March 1966:

A. Victor Manuel Gutierrez Garbin, leader of the PGT group living in exile in Mexico.

B. Francisco “Paco” Amado Granados, prominent Guatemalan leftist and a leader of the 13 November Revolutionary Movement (MR-13), guerrilla organization headed by Marco Antonio Yon Sosa.

C. Carlos Barillas Sosa (also known as Carlos Sosa Barillas), half-brother of Yon Sosa.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Execution,Guatemala,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Revolutionaries,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1916: Benjamin Argumedo

Add comment March 1st, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1916, Mexican Revolution commander Benjamin Argumedo was shot at Durango.

Every revolution has its opportunists and this cavalryman swerved wildly between the infighting factions — deserting the general and president overthrown by the revolution, Porfirio Diaz, in favor of Francisco Madero (president from 1911 to 1913), then switching to rebel Pascual Orozco, and then to El Usurpador Victoriano Huerta (president from 1913 to 1914 via a coup), and last a swing to the left-wing revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.

This man waged a running guerrilla battle against the government until his own death in 1919 … by which time Argumedo was long done for, having been run to ground by Constitutionalist general Francisco Murguia. (Murguia extended him the courtesy of a drumhead tribunal the day before execution.)

Argumedo was reportedly refused a plea to be shot in the public plaza for maximum spectacle, and died with a wish upon his lips that posterity forego noxious flourishes of rank because “we are all equal material for the grave.” (Executed Today endorses this sentiment.)


The corrido “Las Mananitas de Benjamin Argumedo” — “So much fighting and fighting, / so much fighting and fighting, / with my Mauser in my hands. I came to be shot, / I came to be shot / in the cemetery of Durango.” (Full lyrics and even sheet music to be found in Hispano Folk Music of the Rio Grande Del Norte.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Mexico,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Shot,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1927: Mateo Correa Magallanes

Add comment February 6th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1927, Catholic padre Mateo Correa Magallanes was martyred during Mexico’s brutal Cristero war.

We’ve previously noted the bloody 1926-1929 rebellion of Catholics in central and western Mexico against the liberal and secular state that had emerged from the previous decade’s Mexican Revolution.

Imprisoned as a Cristero sympathizer during this conflict, Correa (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) administered the church’s sacrament of confession to some fellow-prisoners.

When the nearest general caught wind of this event, he immediately demanded of the priest the details those comrades revealed in the rite. Correa positively refused: the inviolable seal of the confessional being a principle that Romish clergy have bravely died for down the ages.

Correa joined their number by refusing every threat and blandishment to break his silence. He was shot in a cemetery outside Durango on the morning of February 6, 1927.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,God,History,Martyrs,Mexico,Religious Figures,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1861: Antonino Aberastain

Add comment January 12th, 2020 Headsman

Argentinian politician Antonino Aberastain was executed on this date in 1861, after the Battle of Rinconada del Pocito.

A polymath barrister from Buenos Aires, Aberastain was cursed to live his days amid the long and terrible civil wars — which pitted liberal centralizers (the Unitarian party) against conservative federalists. Aberastain belonged to the former faction.

After an interesting career that saw him by turns lawyer, judge, newsman, and national minister — and for most of the 1840s, exile abroad in Chile when a Federalist warlod chased him out — Aberastain in 1860 led a putsch that deposed and killed the Federalist governor of San Juan in November 1860.

The Federalist counterattack was settled in battle at a place called La Rinconada* on January 11, 1861, and the reader may well infer the outcome from the presence of the Unitarian commander on this site. The victorious Federal commander had him summarily executed the next day.

With the eventual settlement of hostilities, Aberastain settled in as a heroic Sanjuanino; this monument to him decorates a square that’s named for him in San Juan city.


(cc) image from EagLau.

* By coincidence, it had also been the site of a different Unitarian-Federalist battle in 1825.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Judges,Lawyers,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1863: Angel Vicente Peñaloza, “Chacho”

Add comment November 12th, 2019 Headsman

Angel Vicente Peñaloza — “Chacho” to friends and to history — was stabbed and shot to death on this date in 1863.

This caudillo was a casualty of Argentina’s long, long conflict between unitarians looking to centralize the state and federalists looking to hold power devolved to their own provinces. Chacho (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) stood in the latter camp.

A career officer from a prosperous ranching family, Peñaloza had become the caudillo of his native La Rioja province by the 1850s — meaning he was also its key military leader when unitarian-federalist hostilities turned kinetic from 1858.

His skirmishes with the unitarian president Bartolome Mitre saw Chacho hopelessly outgunned, but an attempt between the rivals to conclude a peace treaty turned sour over a prisoner exchange — whose quota Mitre allegedly met with corpses rather than living fighters. Chacho rose again, for the last time, in March 1863, writing angrily to Mitre that his

governors are become the executioners of the provinces … they banish and kill respectable citizens without trial solely because they belong to the federal party.

That is why, Mr. President, that the people, tired of a despotic and arbitrary domination, have proposed justice, and all men who have nothing to lose would rather sacrifice their existence on the battlefield, defending their liberties and their laws and their most precious interests trampled by vile perjurers.

It was just the invitation Mitre needed to crush him: Peñaloza’s several thousand followers were simply outlawed, giving soldiers and militia carte blanche to murder them at discretion. Captured at the village of Olta, he was summarily killed later that same day by the commander in the field and they didn’t stop there: Chacho’s head was nailed up in the town square, and his widow made to sweep the streets of San Juan, manacled in disgrace.

His doomed rebellion has seen him to a heroic posthumous reputation, buttressed by the verse homage of poet Olegario Victor Andrade. There’s also a rampant equestrian monument to the martir del pueblo near Olta.


(cc) image by masterrp.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Borderline "Executions",Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Power,Put to the Sword,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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2011: Muammar Gaddafi

Add comment October 20th, 2019 Headsman

Dictator Muammar Gaddafi (several alternate transliterations are familiar, such as Qaddafi and Gadhafi) was killed by his captors during the Libyan civil war on this date in 2011 — an act very much on the extrajudicial and summary side of the foggy borderlands defining an “execution”.

Libya’s despot since ejecting the British-supported King Idris way back in 1969, the wily colonel steered his state for 40-odd years; his blend of pan-Arabism, Islamic socialism, pan-Africanism, and direct democracy is known as the Third International Theory and expounded in Gaddafi’s own manual of political theory, The Green Book — which became required reading for generations of his subjects.

Eventually a figure of western vilification and a fixture in the United States’s enemy-of-the-month rotation, Gaddafi’s anti-imperialist credentials earned him respectful eulogies from Palestinians, black South Africans, and Latin American revolutionaries, all of whom he had at times aided. Whatever measure of genuine popular support he earned by measures like land distribution, Gaddafi did not hesitate to buttress with brutality. Internal regime opponents and dissident exiles alike had cause to fear him, and it’s not as if innocent bystanders could sleep easily either: a London constable was shot from the Libyan embassy during demonstrations in 1984, and only worldwide outcry prevented the execution of six foreign doctors who were scapegoated for an HIV outbreak in the early 2000s. Gaddafi’s government in 2008 paid $1.5 billion in compensation to settle a bundle of international terrorism incidents, including the 1986 West Berlin discotheque bombing and the 1988 Pan Am Flight 103 bombing over Lockerbie, Scotland.

Fitting that his own savage end might enter periodization historiography as the fin de siècle américain.

The ham-fisted NATO intervention into Libya’s Arab Spring-era civil war that brought about Gaddafi’s death might be the last that Washington will have undertaken in its purported “hyperpower” era, accountable to none but its own intentions; certainly it was (in the words of James Mann) “the apotheosis of the Obamian approach to the world.”

The aftermath did not flatter the Obamians: post-Gaddafi Libya speedily descended into failed-state status and has spent most of the 2010s cursed by still-continuing civil war, human rights horror, Islamic terrorism, and even open slave markets, with knock-on effects stoking the refugee crisis in Europe.*

The chief advocate of the intervention within the Obama administration, Samantha Power of Strangelovian nomen and Bosnian war dreams, recently published her memoir, The Education of an Idealist and issued the enraging auto-exoneration, “We could hardly expect to have a crystal ball when it came to accurately predicting outcomes in places where the culture was not our own.” Merely being alive for the aftermath of the Iraq omnishambles might have done her the job of scrying; Power’s boss, at least, learned the lesson well enough to shy from the reckless regime-change commitments demanded (including by Power herself) for the Syria conflict that might have brought not only similar catastrophe to its immediate “beneficiaries” but the prospect of nuclear confrontation with Russia. More warfare is surely on humanity’s horizon as the 2020s approach, but with great power competition rising alongside the seas, the prospect that it will be undertaken with such careless self-regard in such a large and consequential state seems remote.

Nor will future Libyas be so vulnerable as Libya, if they can help it. In the years prior, Gaddafi had ostentatiously surrendered his nuclear ambitions in exchange for aid and diplomatic normalization. Other observers like North Korea have justifiably concluded that states armed with nukes don’t get invaded while those armed with Foggy Bottom IOUs are just the next Melos in waiting. They’ll have the horrific viral videos of a bloodied and pleading Gaddafi being brutalized by his captors to remind them.

The dry narrative of his fate, from a UN investigation:

On 19 October 2011, Qadhafi’s son Mutassim decided they should leave Sirte because the thuwar had encircled and entered the city, trapping Muammar Qadhafi and his men in District 2. On the morning of 20 October they set off in a heavily armed convoy of approximately 50 vehicles. The convoy consisted of Muammar Qadhafi; his son Mutassim who was already wounded; Defence Minister Abubakr Younis … and approximately 200 armed men. There were also women and children in the convoy. Some of the armed men evacuated their wounded colleagues from the hospital and these unarmed men were placed in cars with their bandages still on; some still had tubes in their bodies.

The convoy headed east on the main road but ran into a rebel ambush. Numerous cars were badly damaged in the ambush and a number of people were injured. They circled to the sea road and headed west. The convoy split up. At this point a Toyota Corolla in front of Muammar Qadhafi’s green Landcruiser was hit by a NATO airstrike, probably by a Predator drone, and exploded. The explosion set off the airbags in Qadhafi’s car. Muammar Qadhafi and switched cars. The front of the convoy started taking fire from thuwar positions near the power plant and so Muammar Qadhafi, and others took refuge in a house as some of their bodyguards engaged in a fire fight with the rebel positions.

Moments after Muammar Qadhafi entered the house, an airstrike hit the vehicles, setting off secondary explosions. The strike and subsequent explosions left many wounded lying on the ground. At this point the thuwar began shelling the house where Muammar Qadhafi was hiding. Mutassim Qadhafi took approximately 20 fighters and left to look for vehicles. Muammar Qadhafi reportedly wanted to stay and fight but was persuaded to escape. The group belly-crawled to a sand berm. On the way an electrical transformer was struck and electrical wires fell on Qadhafi, striking his head, but he was saved by his blue flak jacket and a Kevlar helmet which was knocked off. The group reached the berm and ran behind it to the road where there were two drainage pipes. The group crawled through the pipes and took up a defensive position on the west side of the road where the pipes terminated.

Muammar Qadhafi crouched outside and between the two pipes. Abubakr Younis was in the right pipe and two fighters took up a position by a berm facing south and the other fighters faced north. The group was sheltered from the road and was unseen by the rebels … [until it] decided the group would make a stand and opened fire on a passing rebel vehicle. There was a fire fight. One of the guards threw a grenade. The grenade hit the top of the cement wall above the pipes and fell in front of Muammar Qadhafi. The guard tried to pick up the grenade but it exploded, killing him … Qadhafi was wounded in the blast by grenade shrapnel that hit and shredded his flak jacket. He sat on the floor dazed and in shock, bleeding from a wound in the left temple.

At that point, one of the party fashioned a white flag from his turban and waved in surrender to the thuwar from the 501st Brigade. The thuwar laid the men on their faces and bound their wrists. Muammar Qadhafi was immediately surrounded by thuwar and beaten. Muammar Qadhafi was heard to ask, “What is going on?” The survivors were placed into vehicles and taken away. [Mutassim Gaddafi and Abu-Bakr Yunis were also killed that same day by their captors. -ed.]

This is where the eyewitness evidence received by the Commission ends. Videos of the scene show Muammar Qadhafi being roughly handled by the thuwar, many screaming “We are Misrata” to identify where they are from. He is apparently stabbed with a bayonet in the buttocks. He is placed on the hood of a vehicle, bloody but alive, before being placed in an ambulance. He clearly has one head wound from the grenade shrapnel, but is otherwise not wounded. This is the last time Muammar Qadhafi is seen alive.

A televised interview of one of those who accompanied Muammar Qadhafi in the ambulance gave an account of what happened next. The young man, who states he is from Benghazi but was travelling with men from the Misrata thuwar when the Qadhafi convoy was attacked, claims he was the one that found Muammar Qadhafi and got into the back of the ambulance with him and two men from the Misrata thuwar. The ambulance started to drive to Misrata. The young man claims there was an argument between himself and the men from Misrata on what to do with Muammar Qadhafi, with him wanting to bring Qadhafi back to Bengazi. He claims he shot Qadhafi in the head and abdomen.

The Commission is unable to verify his claims. Video shows he was in the ambulance when Muammar Qadhafi was placed in it. What is clear is that Qadhafi was alive when he was taken into custody and placed in an ambulance in Sirte by members of the Misrata thuwar and was seemingly dead when the ambulance arrived in Misrata …

According to news reports, the official autopsy states Qadhafi was killed by a gunshot to the head. The Commission was not provided access to the autopsy report despite numerous requests to the NTC. Photos of Muammar Qadhafi’s body were provided to the Commission by members of the medical committee of Misrata who participated in the external examination of Qadhafi’s body … Analysis of the photos of the abdominal wounds by the Commission’s forensic pathologist determined they were penetrating wounds in the epigastric area, the nature of which was difficult to determine from photographs. Interviews with journalists who saw the body indicate Qadhafi was shot once in the head and twice in the abdomen.

* Just months ago as of this writing, the German sea captain Carola Rackete was arrested for breaking an Italian blockade to dock in Sicily with some 40 migrants: they’d been rescued off the coast of Libya.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Borderline "Executions",Cycle of Violence,Execution,Heads of State,History,Libya,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Summary Executions,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1928: Chen Jue

Add comment October 14th, 2019 Headsman

China Communist revolutionary hero Chen Jue was executed on this date in 1928 by the nationalist Kuomintang.

Chen Jue with his wife Zhao Yunxiao or Yunqi are celebrated revolutionary martyrs for their respective sacrifices of life for the cause in Changsha.

They met pursuing studies of revolutionary praxis in Moscow in the mid-1920s, and returned as revolutionary cadres at just the moment that China fell to open civil war.

In April 1928 both were betrayed to the KMT. Zhao Yunxiao was pregnant; she would be suffered to carry her daughter Qiming to term before quaffing the same cup as her husband. The two swapped red tear-jerking missives before their death, that are preserved at an exhibit at the People’s Revolutionary Military Museum.

“We didn’t believe in ghosts before. Now I am willing to become a ghost,” the man wrote the wife before his execution. “We are here to save the parents, wives and children of the entire Chinese people, so we sacrificed everything. Although we die, our spirits remain with the comrades who yet live.”

“Little baby, your mother will be taken from you when you have no more than a month and a dozen days,” the wife wrote the child months later. “Little baby, I tell you very clearly that your parents were Communists … I hope that when you grow up, you read well and know how your parents died.”*

Their cause, of course, was destined for victory. If history records the destiny of their child, I have not located it.

* Both of these are my amateur-hour translations via online tours, unaided by any actual expertise in Chinese. Caveat emptor.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot

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1885: Pedro Prestan, isthmus rebel

Add comment August 18th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1885, the Colombian rebel Pedro Prestan hanged at a railroad at the town of Colon, on the isthmus of Panama that was then still a part of Colombia.

The Caragena-born Prestan was part of a liberal rebellion against the government of Rafael Nunez; in the end, Nunez is going to author Colombia’s 1886 constitution and write the words to its national anthem, so it would be fair to say that said rebellion was not crowned with victory.

Nevertheless, in his moment Prestan shook imperial capitals around the globe in the spring of 1885 when his attempt to receive a shipment of weapons at Colón during Ferdinand de Lesseps‘s initial attempt at canal construction was underway. This shipment was interdicted in port with the aid of an American warship, leading Prestan to seize four American hostages as a guarantee for his product. “At the first gun you hear fired from the vessel, shoot these men!” Prestan ordered.

The resulting crisis brought a landing by American marines (operating gingerly lest they provoke the execution of their countrymen), an incursion of Colombian troops, the wholesale burning of Colon, and a brush with war between the U.S. and Chile — the latter also dispatching its navy to the region as a precaution against the United States seizing Panama outright.

In the end, the hostages weren’t shot, Prestan didn’t get his guns, and the foreign interlopers all withdrew to settle the isthmus some other day.

The destruction of Colon was laid at Prestan’s feet once they caught him. A court-martial condemned him on the evening of August 17th; he was hanged the very next day before a large crowd, with a rail car (pulled from under his feet when the moment came to drop him) serving as his scaffold. Prestan protested his innocence of incendiarism to the last.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arson,Capital Punishment,Colombia,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Panama,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Wartime Executions

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1861: Melchor Ocampo, liberal statesman

Add comment June 3rd, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1861, the Mexican statesman Melchor Ocampo was summarily executed by right-wing guerrillas.

Once a seminarian, Ocampo (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) turned his face towards public life, becoming a most eloquent exponent of the era’s movement of liberalism and anticlericalism.

He was among the faction who rebelled in 1854 against recurrent strongman Santa Anna; he served in the ensuing epochal presidency of Benito Juarez and helped to draft the liberal constitution that governed Mexico until 1917. Secular, egalitarian marriage vows promulgated in 1859 by Ocampo are still used in many marriage ceremonies to this day.

The revolutionary social reordering of these years was achieved only by civil war, a conflict remembered as the Reform War which ended only when the conservatives surrendered Mexico City on New Year’s Day of 1861.* Ocampo, who had the stature to stand for president himself, preferred to consolidate the victory by throwing his support to Benito Juarez in the ensuing elections.

Retiring thereafter to private life, he was targeted by one of the numerous remnant right-wing militias that still persisted in the countryside months after the putative conclusion of the Reform War. These abducted him from his home in Michoacan on May 30 and held him for some days, permitting him to write his last letters, before having him shot and strung up on June 3. His remains currently repose in honor at Mexico City’s Rotunda of the Illustrious … as are those of Ocampo’s longtime comrade Santos Degollado, who undertook to hunt down and revenge himself upon his friend’s killers but instead became their prey.

The town of Melchor Ocampo is, quite obviously, named for the man; his surname has been attached as an honorific to his home region of Michoacan, one of Mexico’s 32 states (officially called Michoacan de Ocampo) and to Tepeji del Rio de Ocampo, the place where he was executed.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Execution,Famous,History,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Martyrs,Mexico,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Wartime Executions

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