1980: Ten Hafizullah supporters

Add comment June 9th, 2020 Headsman

This terse report of loose ends tied — so they hoped — hails from the Encyclopedic Dictionary of Conflict and Conflict Resolution, 1945-1996:

On 9 June 1980, the Soviet-supported government of Afghanistan’s Babrak Karmal executed ten supporters and aides of the late president, Hafizullah Amin. Among the number were Amin’s brother and nephew. Also executed at the same time was rebel leader Abdul Majid Kalakhani.

Everyone else in Afghanistan lived happily ever after.

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1964: Nguyen Van Nhung, Diem executioner

Add comment January 31st, 2020 Headsman

Vietnamese General Nguyen Van Nhung was (apparently) executed on this date in 1964.

He was the victim of a South Vietnamese coup, after having been a key operative in the previous one. Back on 2 November 1963, he’d piled into the back of an armored personnel carrier with the fresh-deposed President Ngo Dinh Diem, and Diem’s brother Ngô Dình Nhu. When the APC arrived at its destination, Diem and Nhu were both dead.

According to the other putchist in the vehicle with him,

As we rode back to the Joint General Staff headquarters, Diem sat silently, but Nhu and the captain [Nhung] began to insult each other. I don’t know who started it. The name-calling grew passionate. The captain had hated Nhu before. Now he was charged with emotion … [and] lunged at Nhu with a bayonet and stabbed him again and again, maybe fifteen or twenty times. Still in a rage, he turned to Diem, took out his revolver and shot him in the head. Then he looked back at Nhu, who was lying on the floor, twitching. He put a bullet into his head too. Neither Diem nor Nhu ever defended themselves. Their hands were tied. (Source)

Nhung’s turn as executioner — no unfamiliar role; the guy was notorious for tallying his career kills in notches on his gun barrel — made his boss Duong Van Minh the new President … for all of three months. By all accounts he was a useless executive:

the ruling generals were paralyzed by ineptitude. They had formed a military revolutionary council, composed of twelve members who bickered endlessly. Their normal chairman, General Minh, boasted that the collegial arrangement would guarantee against the autocratic excesses of the old regime. In reality, Minh had contrived the committee in order to bolster his prestige without increasing his responsibility. He was a model of lethargy, lacking both the skill and the inclination to govern. As he confided to me one morning as we chatted in his headquarters, he preferred to play tennis and tend to his orchids and exotic birds than to preside over tedious meetings and unravel bureaucratic tangles … In a cable to Washington, [U.S. ambassador Henry Cabot Lodge] described Minh as a “good, well-intentioned man,” but added a prophetic note: “Will he be strong enough to get on top of things?”

On 30 January 1964, Minh was overthrown by another general, Nguyen Khánh, in a bloodless dawn coup. Well, virtually bloodless. The sole casualty was Nguyen Van Nhung, who paid for the assassination of Diem the next day via a pistol shot to the head at a Saigon villa. The official story promulgated by the new regime described him instead committing suicide in shame for the Diem murder.

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1916: Yakub Cemil, Ottoman putschist

Add comment September 11th, 2019 Headsman

Ottoman officer Yakub Cemil was executed on this date in 1916 as an aspiring putschist.

A Circassian infantryman who served under Enver Pasha in the 1900s, Cemil was an early and ardent supporter of the Committee of Union and Progress. This onetime underground party ascended to national preeminence in 1908, after which Cemil became a sturdy “weapon of the organization”.

He did not shrink to imbrue his hands with blood; allegedly, he assassinated journalist Ahmet Samin Bey in 1910, and on campaign in Libya against the Italian invasion he privately murdered a black lieutenant out of some combination of suspected espionage and racial animus. His implacability was his great asset and his great liability; the eventual father of post-Ottoman Turkeuy, Ataturk is perhaps apocryphally supposed to have mused, “If I one day mount a revolution, Cemil is the first man I want by my side, and Cemil is the first man I will hang afterwards.”

Such provincial homicides were but studies for the main deed of his days when in the 1913 Ottoman coup d’etat when he gunned down War Minister Nazim Pasha on the steps of the Sublime Porte as his CUP comrades barged in to force the resignation of the aging Grand Vizier and take the state firmly in hand.

It was an act that shook capitals around the world.


9 February 1913 edition of Le Petit Journal with a cover depiction of “un coup d’etat a Constantinople: muertre de Nazim Pacha”.

Ironically it was a desire for peace that brought his end. A couple of years deep into the catastrophe of World War I, Cemil rightly perceived the need to extricate his state from the conflict, and began making plans to topple the “Three Pashas” of the CUP whom he had helped to bring to power. His old friend Enver Pasha had no intention of approving the resulting death sentence — indeed, he had caught wind of it and tried persuasion to bring Cemil back onside — but when Enver Pasha was summoned to Berlin for a war council the fellow triumvir Talaat Pasha signed off on the execution with dispatch.

Rumors and legends abound concerning his death, such as shouting “Long live the Committee for Union and Progress!” before the firing squad opened up on him, and an agonizing half-hour bleed-out during which the expiring Cemil scrawled a patriotic slogan in the dirt with his own blood.

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1985: Hezekiah Ochuka, ruler of Kenya for six hours

Add comment July 9th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1985, Kenya air force private Hezekiah Ochuka was hanged for his August 1, 1982 coup d’etat.

By ethnicity a politically marginalized Luo, Ochuka led a putsch of junior airmen whose announcement of leadership over the radio startled Kenyans rising for their breakfast on August 1, 1982.

That leadership lasted only six hours before forces loyal to the ethnically Kikuyu president Daniel arap Moi suppressed it. Some 300 souls were killed in the course of events.

The subsequent security sweep took up not only the putschists themselves but exploited the opportunity to crack down on prominent opposition figures — men like Jaramogi Oginga Odinga and George Anyona, who were tossed into the brutal Nyayo House torture center essentially for being anti-Moi politicians — and beyond them thousands of ordinary Kenyans thought vaguely proximate to sedition by virtue of their politics, lineage, or station in life.

Ochuka himself fled to neighboring Tanzania hoping to find asylum; instead, he was extradited back to Kenya for capital trial and hanged along with two of his collaborators, Corporals Bramwel Injeni Njereman and Walter Odira Ojode, in a badly botched execution.

These men retain to this day the distinction of being the last judicially executed in Kenyan history, even though Kenya still has the death penalty on its books.

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1393: Karsten Sarnow, Stralsund mayor

Add comment June 28th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1393 the mayor of Stralsund was beheaded.

From the perspective of that Hanseatic city‘s hereditary patricianate, Karsten Sarnow was a chancer — a burgher who championed the political reforms that enabled his own self to enter the city council.

He cinched his municipal preeminence by taking leadership of the naval campaign against some Baltic pirates and successfully suppressing them, marching a hundred or more of them through town for execution.

With this prestige he attained the mayoralty and attempted to implement an ambitious constitutional reform that chased the leading grandee family from the city.

This house, the Wulflams,* successfully intrigued against Sarnow from the Hanse sister-city of Lübeck and eventually Wulfhard Wulflam had the pleasure of revenging the slights against his station by ordering the decapitation of both Sarnow’s person and his constitutional innovations.

This coup scarcely resolved the simmering class and faction conflicts in Stralsund, as discussed by F.L. Carstein in Essays in German History, which notes that “from the beginning of the 14th century the patrician rule was attacked time and again by movements and revolts of the urban Commons, especially in the most important town of Pomerania, Stralsund.”

The popular movement, however, was not stifled. The council was forced to declare the memory of the executed Sarnow untarnished; his body was exhumed and given a solemn funeral. The populist party triumphed once more, helped by battles against the pirates. Yet after only a short time the rule of the old council was restored; the leaders of the rebellion were executed and 48 burghers were expelled …

The 15th century brought new unrest to Stralsund, of a clearly anticlerical character. The ecclesiastical superintendent of the town was a nobleman, Kurt von Bonow. In 1407 he complained about the low offerings the burghers gave to him, quit the town, assembled his noble friends and appeared with 300 horsemen outside the walls. They cut off the hands and feet of burghers whom they found outside, burnt down the farms beyond the walls and departed triumphantly with cattle and other booty; burning villages marked their path. When the priests in Stralsund added their insults and the rumour spread that they supported their leader with arms and money, the burghers, led by the porters’ guild, rose against the clergy, imprisoned sixteen of them and then attempted to burn the house where they were confined. The council tried to protect the priests, but the enraged crowd shouted they were all knaves and evildoers, they had helped to fan the fires and therefore they must burn. The master of the porters’ guild demanded the death of the three senior priests who were burned in the market place; the others were saved by the council. The news of ‘the priests burning at the Sund’ (i.e. Stralsund) spread throughout Germany. Then the burghers marched out of the town and pillaged the houses and estates of noblemen who had participated in Bonow’s enterprise. The feud between them and the nobility allied with the duke lasted seven years, and several other Pomeranian towns supported Stralsund. All trade languished …

About this time the social conflicts in the Hanseatic towns, especially in Lübeck, became so strong that the League — which meant the ruling merchant aristocracies — at a Diet held in Lübeck stipulated the death penalty for burghers who summoned the Commons to take action or agitated otherwise against the council; any member town in which the council was forcibly deposed by the burghers was to lose the Hanseatic privileges and liberties and was not to receive any help from the other towns. Fear had grown to such an extent that it was further ordained no burgher was to appear in front of the council with more than six companions.

Wulfhard Wulflam himself was murdered in 1409 in a revenge killing by the son of a noble knight whom he, Wulflam, had slain several years prior.

* The family’s Wulflamhaus, an outstanding exemplar of the late Gothic style, is still to be seen in Stralsund.

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706: Leontios and Apsimar

Add comment February 15th, 2019 Headsman

Likely around February 706 the Byzantine emperors Leontios (Leontius) and Apsimar were executed by the man they’d deposed.

Although a very lesser member of the Roman Empire’s purple club, they had the honor of sort of sounding the death knell of the century-old dynasty founded by the mighty Heraclius.

Heraclius’s great-great-grandson Justinian II had shown himself over a ten-year reign beginning 685 a high- and a ham-handed prince; indeed, his eventual usurper had felt that wrath in 692 when Justinian threw Leontios in prison for losing a battle to the Arabs.

Later restored as strategos of Hellas, Leontios predictably rebelled almost immediately and deposed the irritating legacy case in 695. While many of Justinian’s ministers were put to death, the new boss made an unwise show of clemency by only mutilating Justinian.

(Justinian’s nose was cut off, a mercy masquerading as a grotesquerie: it was commonly meted out in lieu of execution to potential rival imperial claimants with the understanding that the visible mutilation would make it effectively impossible for that person to effectually claim power in the future. Leontios was destined to experience this “mercy” firsthand.)

Our first usurper marks the start of a tumultuous era known as the Twenty Years’ Anarchy wherein seven different emperors ruled in the course of a single generation — so of course he did not have the perquisites of power very long. (The History of Byzantium podcast covers this period in episodes 65 and 66.)

In 698, after the Arabs conquered Carthage — permanently ending the Roman presence in Africa, which dated to the Roman Republic — an admiral named Apsimar claimed the throne for himself. Perhaps it was a pre-emptive lest he be blamed for the Carthage debacle: like Leontios, he first set his foot upon the dais thanks to a failure in the field. For whatever reason it worked with an ease that speaks to the scant legitimacy that Leontios had established among his subjects. Apsimar — Tiberius III, if you please — went as easy on Leontios as had Leontios on his own predecessor, condemning him only to nasal mutilation and monastic imprisonment.

Apsimar had a bit more success and a bit more longevity, but only a bit — for in the early 700s, the embittered and vengeful Justinian cinematically managed to escape his overseers, strangle two assassins sent to hunt him down, and sail through a deadly storm* on the Black Sea to catch on with the Bulgars.

There, mutilated face and all, he raised an army to take back Constantinople. This he duly achieved by dint of an ill-guarded water channel to re-enthrone the dynasty of Heraclius, then hauled both of the interregnum rulers before him and smugly propped up his feet upon their backs. Justinian got a golden prosthetic nose and imperial power; the now-ex-kings got publicly beheaded in an amphitheater known as the Kynegion.

Justinian’s improbable political second act lasted just six years more, until he was overthrown in 711 for the second and final time. This usurper had the good sense to kill him.

* In fear of his life during the storm, one of Justinian’s companions allegedly called on him to placate God by promising his enemies mercy. “If I spare a single one of them, may God drown me here,” replied the once and future emperor.

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1987: Five in South Yemen for the Events of ’86

Add comment December 29th, 2018 Headsman

From Yemen Divided: The Story of a Failed State in South Arabia concerning the juridical follow-up to the ouster of Ali Nasir Muhammad during the a civil war in South Yemen referred to as the Events of ’86. This breakdown of order in the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen (PDRY) would set the stage for its eventual 1990 unification with North Yemen.

There was a relentless propaganda campaign against Ali Nasir and his associates, especially Muhammad Ali Ahmad. The main leaders were put on trial in open court in the presence of television cameras and the media. For a while it was compulsive viewing, as hundreds of witnesses testified in a unique experiment. As the process dragged on, however, the leaders became increasingly uncomfortable. The desire for revenge in early 1986 had been replaced by a need by mid 1987 to heal wounds. They now wanted to persuade Ali Nasir’s followers to return to the PDRY and cooperate with the new regime. In March 1987, for example, [Haidar Abu Bakr] al-Attas said that, of the 5,000 who had been arrested in early 1986, only 200 were still being held, of whom 94 were on trial in Aden and 48 were being tried in absentia. Later in the year, a general amnesty was declared for people who returned to the PDRY by the end of the year — subsequently extended to July 1987. Throughout this period, Ali Nasir (by now living in Syria) offered negotiations, which were scorned, but also sent operatives over the border in Shabwa and Abyan to stir up trouble. There was also a steady stream of defections to his headquarters in Ta’izz, not far from the PDRY border.

The trials were concluded in December 1987, and on 27 December the Politburo ratified death sentences on Ali Nasir, Muhammad Ali Ahmad, Ahmad Musa’id Husain, Abdullah Salih Ulaywa, Ahmad Abdullah al-Hassani, Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi (now president of the Republic of Yemen), Faruq Ali Ahmad, Alawi Husain Farhan (former deputy minister of state security), Hadi Ahmad Nasir (former YSP Secretary for Aden), Ahmad Husain Musa and Mubarak Salim Ahmad. It commuted sentences passed on another 24 to 15 years in prison (including Muhammad Abdullah al-Battani and Sulaiman Nasir Muhammad), and it reduced a sentence of 15 years imposed on al-Tali’a leader Anis Hassan Yahva to seven years. Others were given lengthy sentences. Five were executed on 29 December: Faruq Ali Ahmad, Hadi Ahmad Nasir, Alawi Husain Farhan, Ahmad Husain Musa (a former commander of the air force) and Mubarak Salim Ahmad (commander of Ali Nasir’s bodyguards). The executions led to outrage in the north and parts of the PDRY, as well as the wider Arab world. A shocked [Ali Salem] al-Bidh remained firm, but al-Attas and others argued that the remaining prisoners should be treated with leniency. Over the next two years, many of those in prison were released or pardoned.

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1400: Thomas le Despenser, for the Epiphany Rising

Add comment January 13th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1400, the Thomas le Despenser was beheaded — as much a lynching as an execution — by a mob at Bristol.

“I have to London sent
The heads of Salisbury, Spencer, Blunt, and Kent.”

-Henry’s loyal (for now) nobleman Northumberland summing up the destruction of the Epiphany Rising in the last scene of Shakespeare’s Richard II

House Despenser had painstakingly rebuilt its position in the three generations since Thomas’s great-grandfather, the notorious royal favorite Hugh Despenser, was grotesquely butchered for the pleasure of Roger Mortimer. (Readers interested in a deep dive should consult this doctoral thesis (pdf))

By the end of the 14th century, the family patriarch, our man Thomas, had by 1397 parlayed his firm support of Richard II against the Lord Appellant into elevation to a peerage created just for him, the Earldom of Gloucester.

The “Gloucester” sobriquet had just gone onto the market thanks to the beheading that year of the attainted Duke of Gloucester and the consequent revocation of that patrimony. This ought to have been a hint, if his ancestors’ fate did not suffice, that such glories are fleeting. Thomas le Despenser had barely two years to enjoy his newfound rank before Richard II was deposed by Henry Bolingbroke who now styled himself Henry IV.

Despite initially making his terms with the new regime, Despenser joined a conspiracy of nobles that contemplated a coup d’etat during the 1399-1400 holidays — the Epiphany Rising, whose misfire has brought other victims to our attention previously.* Titles are the least of what one forfeits in such circumstances; Thomas managed to grab a boat for Cardiff and possible refuge but to his unhappy surprise the ship’s captain put in at Bristol to deliver him to his enemies: death was summary, his head posted to the capital for duty on the London Bridge.

The Despensers had already proven the resilience of their line in the face of the violent death of this or that scion and although this was a rough coda for their century of glory they were not done for the English political scene by a long shot. Thomas’s widow Constance** got her own plotting afoot by conspiring unsuccessfully in 1405 to kidnap Richard II’s heir from Henry’s custody as an instrument to leverage for political realignment. (Constance, Executed Today is grieved to report, was not executed for this.)

* Episode 134 of the History of England podcast grapples with the Epiphany Rising.

** Constance’s brother is popularly believed to have betrayed the Epiphany Rising.

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820: Not Michael the Amorian, conquer or die

Add comment December 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 820, holiday sentiment cost the Roman emperor his life.

In the unsettled aftermath of Byzantium’s devastating 811 defeat at the Battle of Pliska, the military took the lead in the person of the formerly disgraced general Leo the Armenian.

Leo forced the abdication of a short-reigning predecessor and in this enterprise he was aided by a brother-officer named Michael, known as Michael the Amorian or more colorfully, Michael the Stammerer.*

Both these men had had careers of opportunistically shifting alliances and their friendship did not withstand the intrigues of the palace. (Perhaps the falling-out was aided by ill feeling when Leo put aside his wife, who was Michael’s wife’s sister.)

In 820, Leo got suspicious of Michael and had him condemned to death for plotting against him. But since this grim judgment came down just ahead of Christmas, the emperor graciously gave his comrade-turned-prey a holiday respite. This leniency was one of the very last acts of his life.

When your head ends up on the currency instead of a spike.

It has been famously said that the prospect of imminent execution concentrates the mind wonderfully and that was never truer than for Michael the Amorian. Leo had been right to suspect him of treason — and Michael was able to get word to his co-conspirators to act immediately, lest he betray the lot of them to his inquisitors.

On Christmas morning, Michael’s cronies did just that, ambushing the emperor as he prayed in the chapel of St. Stephen where they cut him down dead — then raced to the palace dungeons to liberate Michael and hail him emperor so hurriedly that he was still partially manacled.

Michael would rule capably for nine years and pass the throne to his descendants, initiating the Amorian or Phrygian dynasty.

The events surrounding this dramatic regime change are covered on the History of Byzantium podcast in episodes 98 and 99 (all about Leo’s reign, culminating with Michael’s coup), and episodes 101 and 102 (all about Michael’s reign).

* Leo also restored the controversial policy of iconoclasm, a policy that Michael continued in his own turn to the profit of this here site.

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1810: Santiago de Liniers

Add comment August 26th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1810, a French officer in Spanish service became an Argentine martyr.

Jacques de Liniers — or Santiago de Liniers, in the Hispanized form* — was a cavalryman turned naval officer descended of a storied noble house,** and he made his bones serving Bourbon princes on either side of the Pyrenees.

Bumping out of the French service in his early twenties, Liniers (English Wikipedia link |French | Spanish) entered his life’s destined course when he took the Spanish colors to fight the Moors in Algiers in 1774.

Progressing thence to the navy, Liniers enjoyed a variegated career at sea in the last quarter of the 18th century, participating among other engagements in the Bourbon-backed American Revolution, and in the Barbary Wars.

By the 1790s he had washed up in the Spanish possessions in the cone of South America, then organized as the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata. Here he would achieve both glory and death, coming to the fore of the colony when a surprise 1806 British attack seized lightly-defended Buenos Aires during the Napoleonic Wars. Vowing to make an offering of this interloper Home Riggs Popham‘s Union Jacks to the Dominican convent where he took refuge, Liniers escaped from the occupied city to nearby Montevideo (present-day Uruguay) where he marshaled a local militia that successfully stormed Buenos Aires.

As a result, that convent still holds the captured British flags to this day … and the white-haired Liniers (he was 53 years old at this point) stands front and center in triumph in a famous painting accepting the rosbif surrender:


La Reconquista de Buenos Aires, by Charles Fouqueray (1909).

With the official leadership having fled the place, a “cabildo abierto” — an “open council” assembly of all the city’s heads of household† — anointed the re-conqueror Liniers the new viceroy.

We catch in this easy conversion of military success to populist support a foreshadowing of the caudillo political character that would so color the coming centuries of post-independence politics, writes Lyman L. Johnson in Workshop of Revolution: Plebeian Buenos Aires and the Atlantic World, 1776-1810 — “the first appearance of personalist politics in Buenos Aires … While his closest allies worked the crowd in the Plaza Mayor to demand the substitution of the viceroy, Liniers was conveniently absent in the suburbs, an absence that forced the crowd to march en masse to return him in triumph to the city.” Thereafter, “[l]eaders elevated by contested and irregular means, Liniers the prime case, would now legitimze their claims to power on the massed authority of the transformed porteno plebe.”

Buenos Aires wasn’t the only thing transforming. Across the ocean, Napoleon’s invasion had the Spanish crown on the run. King Charles IV of Spain had recognized Liniers as “Count of Buenos Aires” before Charles’s forced abdication in 1808; however, the Junta of Seville that tenuously asserted itself the Spanish rump state dispatched a different guy as viceroy and Liniers accepted that fellow’s appointment and resigned his post. It’s a surprising decision in retrospect, one that reminds of Liniers’s Old World, ancien regime roots: this very moment in time, with the Spanish crown reduced to a bauble and the Peninsular crises leaving the empire’s overseas possessions to their own devices, saw the advent of breakaway movements throughout South America. Many of Spain’s former colonies there date independence to the 1810s or 1820s as a result.

Argentina marks its independence from July 9, 1816, but that event was product of a separatist war that began with the 1810 May Revolution. This affair deposed the post-Liniers viceroy upon news of French gains in Iberia that had collapsed even the Junta of Seville. If nobody’s left in charge — why not us? (The May Revolution continued to govern in the name of the occulted Spanish king, which is why it doesn’t get the independence day laurels.)

At this, Liniers came out of retirement like an aging pugilist for one fight too many, and mounted an ill-fated royalist counterrevolution. Instead of re-creating the glories of his campaign against the British, Liniers saw his soldiers desert him to an anticlimactic capture.

He was shot together with Juan Antonio Gutierrez de la Concha and three officers of their late unreliable militia at a small town between Cordoba and Buenos Aires called Cabeza de Tigre (“Head of the Tiger”; today it’s known as Los Surgentes‡).

Despite his dying in an attempt to stand athwart Argentinian independence, his heroism against the British has secured him posthumous honor in a country he never wanted to exist. There’s a Liniers neighborhood in Buenos Aires, and a town of Santiago de Liniers; his former estate in Cordoba is preserved today as a museum and UNESCO heritage site.

* The name in either form is “James”; he got it because his birthday, July 25 of 1753, was the feast of St. James.

** The letters of U.S. Founding Father Thomas Jefferson — present in Paris as an envoy from 1784 to 1789 — preserve an invitation from another Liniers (Santiago’s older brother, the comte de Liniers?) “to a game of chess with pear and melon.”

† As distinct from the regular (“closed”) municipal council, comprising just a few handpicked grandees.

‡ Los Surgentes is unfortunately also known for an infamous 1976 massacre of disappeared leftists.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Argentina,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Spain,Wartime Executions

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