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.

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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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1870: Sylvain Salnave, deposed Haitian president

Add comment January 15th, 2019 Headsman

Former Haitian president Sylvain Salnave was executed on this date in 1870.

Salnave was a general who in 1866 overthrew and replaced president Fabre Geffrard — an act which “profoundly unsettled the country.”

Salnave stood at the head of a triumvirate that promulgated a new and more democratic constitution in 1867, abolishing the president-for-life position that his predecessors had asserted — but the political rearrangement collapsed within months and saw the the president and legislature at loggerheads, and then at outright civil war as regional risings multiplied against Salnave.

The president held out under bombardment in the capital of Port-au-Prince until the last days of 1869, when he fled to what he believed was the safety in the Dominican Republic — only to be arrested by the Dominican general Jose Maria Cabral and handed back over to the now-triumphant Haitian rebels. They had Salnave tried on January 15 and immediately executed that same day.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Haiti,Heads of State,History,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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2016: Mir Quasem Ali

Add comment September 3rd, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 2016, Bangladesh hanged tycoon Mir Quasem Ali for crimes against humanity committed during that country’s 1971 War of Independence from Pakistan.

Known at the time of his death as the wealthiest patron of the party Jamaat-e-Islami, Mir Quasem Ali was in 1971 a first-year physics student at Chittagong College.

This cataclysmic year saw “East Pakistan” — as it was then known — separated from Pakistan amid an infamous bloodbath, and it was for this bloodbath that Ali hanged 45 years later. At the time, he was a member of the Islamist student organization Islami Chattra Shangha;* in the autumn of 1971, that organ was tapped for recruits to the pro-Pakistan paramilitary Al-Badr which helped carry out wholesale massacres. Some three million people are thought to have died during this war.

The court that noosed him found that Ali helped to orchestrate the abductions of pro-independence activists to a three-story hotel in Chittagong commandeered from a Hindu family. Victims there were tortured and some murdered, although others survived to tell of Al-Badr guards announcing the defendant’s arrival with the words “Mr Quasem is here. Mr Commander is here,” seemingly establishing quite a high degree of responsibility for events under that roof.

After a bad result in the war, he fled to Saudi Arabia and embarked on the business career that would see him into the global oligarchy as a billionaire media mogul and (once back in Bangladesh) the chief financier of the chief Islamist party. When a score-settling Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed initiated a tribunal to try human rights crimes from the 1971 war, Mir Quasem Ali immediately started spreading millions around Washington D.C. lobby shops in an unsuccessful bid to use international pressure to shut down the proceedings.

He maintained his innocence to the last, even refusing to seek a presidential clemency since that would have entailed an admission of guilt. These trials, several of which have ended at the gallows, have been intensely controversial within Bangladesh, and without.

* Its present-day successor organization is Bangladesh Islami Chhatra Shibir … which was founded in 1977, by Mir Quasem Ali.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Activists,Bangladesh,Businessmen,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Kidnapping,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Ripped from the Headlines,Terrorists

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1936: Melquiades Alvarez, a liberal in a revolutionary time

1 comment August 22nd, 2018 Headsman

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

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

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

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

V.S. Pritchett

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

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

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


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

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Lawyers,Politicians,Power,Shot,Spain,Wartime Executions

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1862: Frisby McCullough, Missouri bushwhacker

Add comment August 8th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1862, Confederate soldier Frisby McCullough was shot as a terrorist during the U.S. Civil War’s guerrilla Missouri campaign.

McCullough had a youthful stint in the California gold rush to his back when he returned to Missouri in the mid-1850s to practice law. (He also served in the Missouri State Guard, a pro-slavery militia that had been established in 1861 by the since-exiled secessionist governor.)

With the onset of the Civil War in 1861, McCullough signed up for the pro-slavery Southern army and after a few different assignments became detailed to aid Confederate Col. James Porter in the hasty bush war raging in that frontier state.

We’ve previously detailed that conflict here. For purposes of this post it will suffice to say that the border state of Missouri was fiercely contested during this war, and claimed by North and South alike.

The Union commander John McNeil was not very inclined to charitably reading the treasonable secessionist irregulars who opposed him in the state, whom the Union considered to be operating illicitly behind its lines — in the character of spies and saboteurs, like the British agent John Andre during the Revolutionary War. This very much applied to our man, since McCullough’s particular gift was recruitment — you know, luring loyal citizens into sedition and rebellion.

On August 6, 1862, McNeil’s forces routed Porter’s at the Battle of Kirksville, and they pressed their victory. The very next day after, McNeil had 15 Confederate prisoners taken at Kirksville executed as former POWs who had violated their paroles by returning to the field: “I enforce the penalty of the bond,” McNeil icily reported to Washington.

Not long after, northern sentries also captured the ailing McCullough riding alone near Edina. He wasn’t a parolee — but “he had no commission except a printed paper authorizing the bearer to recruit for the Confederate army,” McNeil would write of him later in a missive to a comrade. At a snap trial on the 8th, “he was found guilty of bushwhacking and of being a guerilla. He was a brave fellow and a splendid specimen of manhood. I would gladly have spared him had duty permitted. As it was he suffered the same fate that would have fallen to you or me if we had been found recruiting within the Confederate lines. He met a soldier’s death as became a soldier.”

A memoir of the southern travails during this conflict titled With Porter in North Missouri; a chapter in the history of the war between the states is in the public domain; chapter XXII relates with umbrage the fate of McCullough whom the author Dr. Joseph Mudd* greatly admired:

Leaning against a fence he wrote a few lines to his wife, and these, with his watch and one or two other articles, he delivered to an officer to be given her, with assurance of his devoted affection in the hour of death. Upon the way to the place of his execution he requested the privilege of giving the order to fire, which was granted to him. All being ready, he stood bravely up, and without a tremor in his manly frame or a quiver in his clarion voice, he called out, ‘What I have done, I have done as a principle of right. Aim at the heart. Fire!’

… He was a good citizen, a high-minded gentleman, of fine presence, brave as a lion, gentle as a woman. Even in his death the strongest Unionists who knew him respected and admired his virtues and entertained the most bitter regrets that what they considered his misconceptions of duty had led him to his fearful fate. At the time of his death he was thirty-three years of age.

* Dr. Joseph Anthony Mudd hailed from Maryland: he was the brother of the Maryland Dr. Samuel Mudd who narrowly avoided execution as a conspirator in the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Execution,Guerrillas,History,Lawyers,Missouri,Occupation and Colonialism,Shot,Soldiers,Spies,Treason,USA,Wartime Executions

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1931: Xiang Zhongfa, General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party

Add comment June 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1931, Chiang Kai-shek had the former General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party executed.

Xiang Zhongfa was a dock worker unionist from Hanchuan who came to the fore of the workers’ movement within the CCP during the 1920s.

The Party at that time was united in a common front with the nationalist Kuomintang — an alliance that was destroyed suddenly in April 1927 when the KMT leader Chiang suddenly purged the Communists. This split precipitated the generation-long Chinese Civil War through which the Communists would eventually come to master China.

Soviet sponsorship had been essential to the CCP’s early growth. In the months after the KMT arrangement went by the boards, Chinese Communist leaders were summoned by the Comintern to Moscow where Xiang made a good impression on a hodgepodge Sixth Congress held “in the absence of key Party figures, such as Mao, Peng Pai and Li Weihan; and packed with Chinese students from Soviet universities to make up the delegate count.” (Phillip Short) Though he wound up the titular General Secretary, party leadership at the top level remained in the hands of other men, like Zhou Enlai and Qu Qiubai … while effective leadership in the field was largely in the hands of unit commanders themselves, like Mao.

A rocky early trail along the party’s long march to leadership of China and beyond … but Xiang was not made to enjoy it. During the war, he was arrested in Shanghai by the nationalists, interrogated, and delivered to the KMT’s executioners in the early hours of June 24. Orthodox party historiography holds him in disgrace for allegedly betraying the cause to his captors, speedily and cravenly (his Wikipedia entry reflects this); there are historians who dispute this belief, however.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Revolutionaries,Shot,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1661: Archibald Campbell

Add comment May 27th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1661, Presbyterian lord Archibald Campbell, the first Marquess of Argyll, lost his head at Edinburgh.

Once a privy councilor to King Charles I, “Red Argyll” had been in the 1640s a great champion of Scottish national liberty and a leader of the Presbyterians in the many-sided wars that tore apart the British Isles.

Scotland’s Presbyterians — who favored bottom-up church governance as opposed to the crown-controlled selection of bishops that’s known as episcopacy — made an initial alliance with English Parliamentarians to support one another in their mutual hostilities with King Charles I. And in Scotland’s civil war in the mid-1640s, Argyll’s Presbyterians defeated the Earl of Montrose‘s royalists.

But the failure of Oliver Cromwell‘s similarly victorious Parliament to deliver on its covenant fractured the Presbyterian party and drove Argyll to the political sideline.

Argyll’s own opposition to other Presbyterians’ attempted engagement with the imprisoned Charles I became untenable when, to the horror of his countrymen, Charles was beheaded by Parliament. As his entry in the Dictionary of National Biography notes, Charles’s execution “completely upset his calculations, which had all along been founded on a close union between the parliaments of Scotland and of England … the results of his safe and prudent policy were ruthlessly annihilated … [and] Argyll lost his presence of mind, and therefore his control of events in this stupendous conjuncture, and became as much a puppet in the hands of contending factions as was Charles II.” His growing ranks of foes derisively nicknamed him the “Glaed-Eyed Marquis”, attributing an obvious metaphorical import to his imperfect eyesight.

“Myself encountered so many difficulties that all remedies that were applied had the quite contrary operation,” he later wrote of those years when his influence waned. “[I was] a distracted man of a distracted subject in a distracted time wherein I lived.” It did not wane all at once: Argyll had the honor of crowning King Charles II at Scone on the first of January, 1651, and even tested the king with dynastic marriage inquiries for his daughter. (No dice.)

But as events ran away from him he fell into debt, disgrace, and irrelevancy.

When Charles II resumed the throne in 1660, Argyll presented himself at the court of his would-be father-in-law, and was surprised to find himself immediately thrown in the Tower. Like the Presbyterian cause itself, he was permanently and tragically alienated from both factions of the English Civil War: Cromwell always suspected Argyll a royalist for that whole crowning-the-king thing, and Charles always resented Argyll for his part in the destruction of his father.

The Glaed-Eyed Marquis found himself shipped off to Edinburgh to stand trial for treason. Although records of the trial are lost, it’s said that he was on the verge of total acquittal when Cromwell’s former commander in Scotland, George Monck, delivered a packet of incriminating letters. This story might be apocryphal but Argyll lost his head all the same, on Edinburgh’s distinctive Maiden.

Peruse here Argyll’s tart and downright comical last will and testament, satirizing many of the surviving figures of the day and bidding his heirs to lay his body “so shallow, that at the next trump of sedition, it may by the same raise-devil directory [i.e., Parliament] be conjured up again, and meet my exalted head, that bound-mark of Presbytery, its ne plus ultra, ‘Hitherto shall you go and no further.'”


Memorial to Archibald Campbell in Edinburgh’s St Giles’ Cathedral with the epitaph “I set the Crown on the King’s Head. He hastens me to a better Crown than his own.” (cc) image from Kim Traynor.

Argyll’s son and heir, also named Archibald Campbell, was himself executed in 1685 for organizing a Scottish “Argyll’s Rising” against King James II in alliance with the Duke of Monmouth. Their descendants still maintain the rank of Duke of Argyll to this day.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Famous,Gallows Humor,History,Maiden,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Treason

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1918: Edla Sofia Hjulgrén, Finnish parliamentarian

1 comment May 22nd, 2018 Headsman

One hundred years ago today, former Member of Parliament Edla Sofia Hjulgrén was shot during the Finnish Civil War.

A labor activist for many years, Hjulgrén (English Wikipedia entry | the vastly more detailed Finnish) won election to the Eduskunta in 1913 as a Social Democrat.*

At the time, Finland was still a Grand Duchy within tsarist Russia. When the Russian revolutionaries who conquered power in St. Petersburg in 1917 proved reluctant to agree to Finnish independence, the Finns just declared it, and a civil war ensued in the first months of 1918 — between Soviet-backed Red Guards and German-backed White Guards.

The Whites won a nasty war thick with atrocities on both sides. Although she was a pacifist, our Sofia Hjulgrén was among hundreds of Red supporters swept up after the decisive Battle of Vyborg clinched White victory. She was shot there — it’s Viipuri to the Finns, and Vyborg to the Russians — in the cemetery. The Soviets got Vyborg back in a subsequent war with Finland, and erected a monument there to the hundreds of victims of the Whites’ April-May 1918 Vyborg Massacre.


(cc) image by Olga.

* Finland boasts of being the first legislature in the world with full gender equality — meaning that, as of 1906, women enjoyed full equality both to vote and to stand for office. Women comprised above a tenth of its parliamentary delegates on the eve of Finland’s independence.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Finland,History,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Russia,Shot,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women

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1863: Spencer Kellogg Brown, Union spy

Add comment September 25th, 2017 Headsman

Spencer Kellogg Brown, a young Union spy during the U.S. Civil War, was hanged on this date in 1863 in the rebel capital of Richmond, Virginia.

Brown would come by the latter years of his short life to commonly drop his surname and simply go by Spencer Kellogg: this was fruit of the same cause for his enthusiasm for the northern cause, to wit, his growing to manhood in Osawatomie, the antislavery epicenter of the dirty frontier war known as “Bleeding Kansas”. But the thing about the name was, notwithstanding Kellogg’s/Brown’s enthusiasm for the Free State side, the surname he chanced to share with the ferocious abolitionist warrior John Brown was liable to get a body killed when uttered in the wrong company. (There was no blood relationship between Spencer Brown and John Brown.)

Spencer Kellogg Brown was just a teenager when he joined the Union army but the pell-mell ramp-up to war footing opened opportunities for able people. Brown rose out of the enlisted ranks to an officer’s commission and was detailed for risky scouting assignments into rebel territory down the Mississippi River, even feigning desertion so that he could enlist in the Confederate ranks and then escape back to his own lines with intelligence. Execution was an occupational hazard of this daring profession; eventually, young Brown was captured one too many times.

This public domain volume summarizes the man’s short biography, including many affectionate letters that Brown exchanged with family in the course of his adventures and his subsequent year-long imprisonment. If you like, you can imagine them in that Ken Burns documentary portentous voice-over reading.

Castle Thunder, Richmond, Virginia, Sept. 18, 1863.

Dear Kitty, my Sister: After lying in prison over a year, my time has come at last. To-day I went out for trial, but got it deferred until to-morrow. The witnesses are there, and there can be but one result, death. So I have written to you for all, to bid you a last good-bye, God bless you, I have tried to write often to cheer all, and it seemed very hopeful for a while, but within a few days all hope has left me. But don’t mourn, Kitty, as for one without hope. These only take away the mortal life, but God, I trust, has given me one that is immortal. Dear Kitty, I hope there is a ‘shining shore’ for us all, and another world where, free from guilt, we’ll no more sorrow, or part. I do not look forward with fear to death — not nearly as much as when it was farther off. God has been very kind to me, and for the past twelve months I have tried earnestly to please Him. I fear the embarrassment of the trial, to-morrow, the worst, but He will help me, I trust.

I have some little trinkets; you must divide them. The ring is for my wife; if she be not found, for yourself. Take comfort now, dear ones, God is good, and naught shall separate us from Him. I have hoped and longed, indeed, to see you all; but I know His wisdom chooses better; let us be content. Thank Him that all this time He has given me life and health and a heart to love Him, and to trust in Christ. Much as I long to see you all, I know ’tis best as it is, for He doeth all things well. So do not mourn, but hope — and think of heaven, where I hope, by God’s mercy, to await you all.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Hanged,History,Soldiers,Spies,USA,Virginia,Wartime Executions

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