1896: Patrick Coughlin, shot in the mountains

Add comment December 15th, 2018 Headsman

From the San Francisco (Calif.) Call, Dec. 16, 1896.

UTAH MURDERER EXECUTED

Patrick Coughlin, the Slayer of Two Officers, Shot to Death in Rich County.

SALT LAKE, Utah, Dec. 15. — Patrick Coughlin was executed in Rich County, this State, this morning, for the murder of Deputy Sheriff Dawes and Constable Stagg, in July, 1895. Coughlin chose shooting as the method of his taking off. [He could have opted for hanging -ed.] He was pinioned, blindfolded and seated on a stationary chair, and six deputy sheriffs fired simultaneously, aiming at the heart, over which a piece of white paper was fastened. Every shot pierced the mark and death was instantaneous.


Photo of the arrangement of Coughlin’s execution. Via the University of Utah, whose watermark appears in the center.

Coughlin was about 23 years of age, a native of Pennsylvania, and came to this State when quite young. For some years he was considered a hard character. In July, 1895, he and another young man, Fred George, stole a band of horses and were pursued by officers. For over a week they eluded capture, and several times when brought to bay fired upon their pursuers, escaping further into the mountains. They were surrounded in a little cabin, and when called upon to surrender fired repeatedly, killing the two officers named and wounding others before the posse retired.

Several days later they were captured, 150 miles from the scene of the killing. Both were tried on the capital charge and Coughlin was sentenced to be shot and George to a life term in the penitentiary.

Coughlin’s execution took place near the spot where the murders were committed, up in the mountains.

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1950: Shooting on Seoul’s Execution Hill

Add comment December 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1950, South Korean police shot more than 100 alleged Communists on a hill outside Seoul. It was just one day amid a weeklong bloodbath that claimed a reported 800 or more, although December 15 was the one that helped to thrust the horrors into public consciousness in the West.

These mass executions occurred in the paroxysm after the North Korean capital of Pyongyang — briefly captured by the United Nations offensive earlier in 1950 — was retaken by Chinese-supported Communist forces in early December.

These were themselves only the most recent installment of numerous indiscriminate mass murders that had scarred the South Korean rear once Chinese intervention in the summer of 1950 turned the tide of the war. A South Korean Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigation from the 2000s estimated that the collective death toll of countless such executions could “conservatively” run to 100,000-plus: “the worst tragedy of 20th century South Korea,” as one commission member provocatively characterized it.

In a Kafkaesque bureaucratic twist, many of those rounded up for execution were culled from the rolls of the “National Guidance League”, an organ set up by the Seoul government to re-educate former leftists. Enlistment to the League was incentivized by extra rations pushed by local officials with signup quotas to make, and that was just great for everyone until that same state decided to turn it into an expedient roster of fifth columnists.

“The authorities pressed us to join the league,” one aged survivor said at a 2009 news conference. “We had no idea that we were joining a death row.”

American officials directing the South Korean army downplayed all this as it was occurring. Even when the Korean War ended in 1953, South Korea remained under the dictatorial administration of its wartime president Syngman Rhee, whose commitment to strangling leftist dissent extended so far as hanging the presidential candidate of the Progressive Party. For many years the wartime massacres could be no more than murmured at.

The chaos of war helped bring the executions to momentary prominence in December 1950, however, when western conscripts bivouacked down adjacent to the capital’s “execution hill” and were aghast to witness what was happening there.

“A wave of disgust and anger swept through American and British troops who either have witnessed or heard the firing squads in action in the Seoul area during the last two days,” reported the United Press on December 17, 1950. (via the Trenton (N.J.) Evening Times of the same date) On Friday, December 15, those soldiers “were horrified upon seeing truckloads of old men, women, youths and several children lined up before open graves and shot down by South Korean military police with rifles and machineguns.

“One American captain George Graff reported he kicked aside the dirt lightly covering one of the bodies and found it still twitching.”

Deeply shocked, one British soldier wrote to the government “wondering which side was right in Korea.”

Revulsion among these forces and their newspaper-reading publics threatened to badly erode support for the mission — a point made forcefully by the Archbishop of York in a letter to the London Times (December 20, 1950):

Sir, —

I hope that our Government will convey to the South Korean Government the horror and detestation with which the people of this country have read the accounts of the wholesale execution of suspected Communist sympathizers. Your Correspondent says it is reported that some of the murdered women “carried babies on their backs.” If these barbarous executions continue, all sympathy with South Korea will vanish, and instead there will be a general demand that the forces of the United Nations should no longer be used to protect a Government responsible for these atrocities. I am glad to see that British soldiers on the spot already have shown their anger at these killings.

Yours faithfully,
Cyril Ebor
Bishopthorpe, York, Dec. 18

Christian ministers in Korea likewise raised alarm over these atrocities with both United Nations and South Korean authorities. Due regard for humanity and/or public opinion led the United Nations on December 17th to exhume the execution grounds looking for evidence of child executions. But the very same day, according to the U.P. (via the Cleveland Plain Delaer, Dec. 18, 1950),

South Koreans hauled another batch of prisoners to snow-covered “Execution Hill” this afternoon and shot them.

Evidently to escape the eyes of angry American G.I.s and British Tommies, the prisoners apparently were forced to lie down in trenches where they were killed.

The new executions occurred only two hours after U.N. observers had supervised an exhumation of bodies lying in four trench-like graves on the hill and after 29th Brigade Commander Tom Brodie had told his officers he was not prepared to tolerate further executions in his area.

As layer after layer of bodies were disinterred from the mountain graveyard, Fusillier Capt. Bill Ellery, tall, moustached British officer, said coldly and precisely what all watching British and American troops were thinking.

“We don’t do this sort of thing in my country.”

A South Korean apologized. The prisons were so crowded with Communists sentenced to death that Execution Hill was the only solution.

“There are so many to execute,” he said.

An abatement of visible-to-western-press executions and the cosmetic expedient of a small Christmas amnesty appears to have stanched the immediate threat to homefront support for the war — which would continue for another two and a half years.

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1882: Myles Joyce, Maamtrasna murder miscarriage

Add comment December 15th, 2016 James Joyce

Thanks to James Joyce for the guest post on “the ancient tribe of the Joyces”, originally published as “Ireland at the Bar” on September 16, 1907 during Joyce’s Italian exile for nationalist newspaper Il Piccolo della Sera of Austrian-dominated Trieste. As the reader will see, James Joyce is interested here in this case as symbolic,* but readers curious about the particulars of the murders and this still-notorious miscarriage of justice might want to tune into the Irish History Podcast’s three-part series on the case or follow the various links for more. -ed.

The definitive 1992 book on this trial, Maamtrasna: The Murders and the Mystery, is out of print but not difficult to find on the used book market. An earlier volume, The Maamtrasna Massacre: Impeachment of the Trials, is in the public domain.

Several years ago a sensational trial was held in Ireland. In a lonely place in a western province, called Maamtrasna, a murder was committed. Four or five townsmen, all belonging to the ancient tribe of the Joyces, were arrested. The oldest of them, the seventy year old Myles Joyce, was the prime suspect. Public opinion at the time thought him innocent and today considers him a martyr. Neither the old man nor the others accused knew English. The court had to resort to the services of an interpreter. The questioning, conducted through the interpreter, was at times comic and at times tragic. On one side was the excessively ceremonious interpreter, on the other the patriarch of a miserable tribe unused to civilized customs, who seemed stupefied by all the judicial ceremony. The magistrate said:

‘Ask the accused if he saw the lady that night.’

The question was referred to him in Irish, and the old man broke out into an involved explanation, gesticulating, appealing to the others accused and to heaven. Then he quieted down, worn out by his effort, and the interpreter turned to the magistrate and said:

‘He says no, your worship.’

‘Ask him if he was in that neighbourhood at that hour.’

The old man again began to talk, to protest, to shout, almost beside himself with the anguish of being unable to understand or to make himself understood, weeping in anger and terror. And the interpreter, again, dryly:

‘He says no, your worship.’

When the questioning was over, the guilt of the poor old man was declared proved, and he was remanded to a superior court which condemned him to the noose. On the day the sentence was executed, the square in front of the prison was jammed full of kneeling people shouting prayers in Irish for the repose of Myles Joyce’s soul. The story was told that the executioner, unable to make the victim understand him, kicked at the miserable man’s head in anger to shove it into the noose. [The hanging was botched -ed.]

The figure of this dumbfounded old man, a remnant of a civilization not ours, deaf and dumb before his judge, is a symbol of the Irish nation at the bar of public opinion. Like him, she is unable to appeal to the modern conscience of England and other countries. The English journalists act as interpreters between Ireland and the English electorate, which gives them ear from time to time and ends up being vexed by the endless complaints of the Nationalist representatives who have entered her House, as she believes, to disrupt its order and extort money.

Abroad there is no talk of Ireland except when uprisings break out, like those which made the telegraph office hop these last few days. Skimming over the dispatches from London (which, though they lack pungency, have something of the laconic quality of the interpreter mentioned above), the public conceives of the Irish as highwaymen with distorted faces, roaming the night with the object of taking the hide of every Unionist. And by the real sovereign of Ireland, the Pope, such news is received like so many dogs in church. Already weakened by their long journey, the cries are nearly spent when they arrive at the bronze door. The messengers of the people who never in the past have renounced the Holy See, the only Catholic people to whom faith also means the exercise of faith, are rejected in favour of messengers of a monarch, descended from apostates, who solemnly apostasized himself on the day of his coronation, declaring in the presence of his nobles and commons that the rites of the Roman Catholic Church are ‘superstition and idolatry’.


Myles Joyce (leftmost) along with Patrick Joyce (center) and Patrick Casey (right). All three hanged together.

There are twenty million Irishmen scattered all over the world. The Emerald Isle contains only a small part of them. But, reflecting that, while England makes the Irish question the centre of all her internal politics she proceeds with a wealth of good judgment in quickly disposing of the more complex questions of colonial politics, the observer can do no less than ask himself why St. George’s Channel makes an abyss deeper than the ocean between Ireland and her proud dominator. In fact, the Irish question is not solved even today, after six centuries of armed occupation and more than a hundred years of English legislation, which has reduced the population of the unhappy island from eight to four million, quadrupled the taxes, and twisted the agrarian problem into many more knots.

In truth there is no problem more snarled than this one. The Irish themselves understand little about it, the English even less. For other people it is a black plague. But on the other hand the Irish know that it is the cause of all their sufferings, and therefore they often adopt violent methods of solution. For example, twenty-eight years ago, seeing themselves reduced to misery by the brutalities of the large landholders, they refused to pay their land rents and obtained from Gladstone remedies and reforms. Today, seeing pastures full of well fed cattle while an eighth of the population lacks means of subsistence, they drive the cattle from the farms. In irritation, the Liberal government arranges to refurbish the coercive tactics of the Conservatives, and for several weeks the London press dedicates innumerable articles to the agrarian crisis, which, it says, is very serious. It publishes alarming news of agrarian revolts, which is then reproduced by journalists abroad.

I do not propose to make an exegesis of the Irish agrarian question nor to relate what goes on behind the scene in the two faced politics of the government. But I think it useful to make a modest correction of facts. Anyone who has read the telegrams launched from London is sure that Ireland is undergoing a period of unusual crime. An erroneous judgment, very erroneous. There is less crime in Ireland than in any other country in Europe. In Ireland there is no organized underworld. When one of those events which the Parisian journalists, with atrocious irony, call ‘red idylls’ occurs, the whole country is shaken by it. It is true that in recent months there were two violent deaths in Ireland, but at the hands of British troops in Belfast, where the soldiers fired without warning on an unarmed crowd and killed a man and woman. There were attacks on cattle; but not even these were in Ireland, where the crowd was content to open the stalls and chase the cattle through several miles of streets, but at Great Wyrley in England, where for six years bestial, maddened criminals have ravaged the cattle to such an extent that the English companies will no longer insure them. Five years ago an innocent man, now at liberty, was condemned to forced labour to appease public indignation. But even while he was in prison the crimes continued. And last week two horses were found dead with the usual slashes in their lower abdomen and their bowels scattered in the grass.

* Even, Christine O’Neill-Bernhard argues in “Symbol of the Irish Nation, or of a Foulfamed Potheen District: James Joyce on Myles Joyce” (James Joyce Quarterly, Spring-Summer 1995) to the point of indulging “highly tendentious” polemical misrepresentations, such as inflating the middle-aged Myles Joyce into a 70-year-old patriarch. In James Joyce’s defense, his expatriate apartments on the Adriatic did not comprise a strong fact-checking position with regard to Irish criminal annals, and he might have been working entirely from memory.

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1889: Abushiri, German East Africa rebel

Add comment December 15th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1889, the Germans hanged Abushiri as a rebel.

European empires arriving to East Africa naturally entered a going history of local conflicts and accommodations. In the case of the region at hand, the archipelago of Zanzibar lying just off the coast had been absorbed by, and then spun off from, the domain of the sultan of Oman. As we lay our scene in the late 19th century, it is an independent Sultanate of Zanzibar whose dominion extended to the adjacent Swahili coast and inland, an area also known as the Zanj.

Zanzibar was a British interest here, but the islands themselves do not quite enter this fray directly; the sultanate based there actually survived until 1964.

But in the 1880s, Germans scrambling for Africa arrived to gobble up the sultanate’s mainland possessions. Germany, truth be told, was a little bit late to this game, and although it secured some noteworthy footholds like Cameroon and Namibia, the Second Reich suffered a distinct little imperial brother complex vis-a-vis the British and the French — both of whom had more extensive holdings in Africa, to say nothing of everywhere else in the world.

Certainly the German public, flush with the boom of industrialization and having only just shown the French what-for on the battlefield, clamored for its rightful share of overseas acquisition. The popular thirst for expansion dragged along reluctant chancellor Otto von Bismarck into an adventure so inimical to the good order he prized.

One such German dreaming big dreams of bigger maps was a cocksure 29-year-old doctor of history, Carl Peters. Fresh off a few post-academic years knocking about in a London astir with the white man’s burden, Peters co-founded the German East Africa Company and then put that colonial corporation literally on the map with a bold expedition to Zanzibar. Within a few weeks of arriving in November 1884, and despite the explicit dissuasion of the German consulate there, Peters had obtained via just the right mixture of largesse and menace treaty rights to 155,400 square kilometers conferred by a number of coastal chiefs in the mainland ambit of the Sultan of Zanzibar.

When Peters returned in glory to Germany brandishing these concessions, Chancellor Bismarck was practically forced to accept them as a German protectorate … and charter Peters’s corporation to start exploiting it. The mid-1880s saw a minor local race between Peters and rival British explorers to establish their respective colonial presences on the Swahili coast,* resulting in an 1886 Anglo-German agreement formally dividing the region’s spheres of influence: British to the north, German to the south. Today this line, shooting near-straight to the southeast from Lake Victoria to the Indian Ocean with a slight bend round Mount Kilimanjaro, forms the border between Kenya and Tanzania.

We are, at length, arriving at the unfortunate party whose execution occasions this post.

The problem for young Master Peters with his personal agglomeration of the fatherland was nothing but that familiar difficulty for invaders from time immemorial — and Peters was ultimately an invader, no matter what treaties he could wrangle. For his short spell as the commercial governor of this distant land, Peters earned of his Bantu subjects the sobriquet Milkono wa Damu: the man with blood on his hands.

Diplomats could partition the land in Berlin, and could even compel the supine sultan to acknowledge their arrangements. But no edict could command legitimacy for the man with blood on his hands.

Beginning in September 1888, rebels comprising both Arabs and Swahili tribesmen sacked German East Africa Company assets up and down the coast Peters had so diligently won for Germany. Rousted from most of its towns and trading posts, the Company hunkered down in its territorial capital of Bagamoyo and cabled Berlin for help. Bismarck paternally relieved the in-over-its-head company with the aid of mercenaries hired from Egypt and Mozambique, crushed the uprising with customary roughness, and ushered Peters’s firm out of the colonial administration business in favor of adult supervision. The little protectorate soon became German East Africa, administered as a proper colonial appendage of the German Empire.

This Abushiri revolt (English Wikipedia entry | German) is named for its most prominent leader, a mixed-race Arab-Oromo coastal planter named Abushiri ibh Salim al-Harthi (English Wikipedia entry | German). He would be betrayed to German hands trying to escape and promptly executed; however, resistance by others continued to 1890.


(Via)
They struck down
The flag of Islam
And now proposed
To raise their own.

They came to Pangani
Full of wrath,
They fitted up the house
And laid cannon.

And the ship at Maziwe
The whole town was humbled
And the Europeans
Strode about the streets.

The town was silent,
No one spoke,
Not a free man
Said a word.

-Swahili poet Hemedi al-Buhriy†

This new disturbance, whose suppression Britain also aided, helped lead London and Berlin back to the negotiating table for the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty of 1890 — a comprehensive African arrangement to settle up spheres of influence not only on the Swahili coast but touching Namibia and Togoland, too. Meanwhile, Germany gave up remaining claims north of the Swahili coast dividing line and ceded Zanzibar itself to British authority; in exchange, she obtained the islands of Heligoland off her northwest shoulder — closing a potential security vulnerability.**

Among the many curiosities of the years to follow for the great imperial powers concerned, few are more vexing than just why it was that England and Germany went to war in 1914. Profitable as that bloody effusion has been for these grim annals, it posed as antagonists two countries that had long been thought by keen observers to be natural allies — a belief shared by numerous British and German statesmen. Otto von Bismarck was certainly one of these; his desire for an English alliance (against France and Russia) was a pole star of the Iron Chancellor’s foreign policy. Indeed, he worked amicably with his British opposite number Lord Salisbury; Bismarck once opined of his unwillingly adopted East African holdings that they were “admirably suited to become the sacrificial ram on the altar of friendship” with Great Britain.

But that isn’t what happened.

The failure of these great powers’ flirtation with one another, and the arrangements they ultimately made with other powers instead, defined the belligerents of the Great War. And while we would scarcely propose to lay the charnel houses of Verdun and Gallipoli at the shores of Zanzibar, it has sometimes been postulated that the fatal obstacle to Britain’s arrangement with Germany might have been the paucity of horses to swap.

Thanks to far-flung colonial expansion, Britain had many borders with France all over the globe, and accordingly had frequent need to collaborate and an ample store of chips to trade. With Germany, she had but a few intersections, in Africa — and these were settled almost too comprehensively (pdf) after the Abushiri revolt.

* It goes without saying that the sultan was none too happy about this development, but he was made to get used to the idea. (Germany sent warships, and Great Britain declined to back the sultan.)

The Anglo-German agreement accordingly limited the sultan’s authority on the coast to a 10-mile strip. Although the European powers commanded whatever leases they desired from this zone, Zanzibar’s anomalous territorial claims on the mainland would not be extinguished until the post-colonial era. When that day came, the 10-mile strip made for quite a sticky wicket during negotiations for Kenyan independence in the 1960s. The whole situation lies very far from the scope of this post, but the connosseur of diplomatic Gordian knots should pause to enjoy this pdf exploring the whole mess.

** Each party valued the thing it received quite a bit more than the thing it traded away in this treaty. From Britain’s perspective, Heligoland would be nigh-indefensible in the event of war with Germany; from Germany’s perspective, the claims it gave up outside of German East Africa were little better than phantasmal.

† via Charles Pike’s “History and Imagination: Swahili Literature and Resistance to German Language Imperialism in Tanzania, 1885-1910,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 19, No. 2 (1986)

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1865: William Corbett and Patrick Fleming

1 comment December 15th, 2014 Ramicles

(Thanks to Ramicles, the pseudonymous 19th century Chicago correspondent of the Providence Press, for this eyewitness account of a December 15, 1865 hanging of two hired assassins. It appeared under a December 16 dateline in that paper’s December 21, 1865 edition. -ed.)

I have promised the numerous readers of the EVENING PRESS a description of a death scene, and I will keep my word. But believe me, it is no welcome task; my heart is not in it. On my mind one solemn moral is impressed — one moral only: the terrible reality of crime, the terrible reality of punishment. One naturally follows the other, as night follows day.

At the hour of three, lacking ten minutes, on yesterday afternoon, I saw two men, William Corbett and Patrick Fleming, take a formal farewell of this world and enter an untried existence. Those who love to linger on the few hours which the wretched men passed, in the anticipation of that final scene, may do so. I will not. They knew that they had incurred the law’s extreme penalty, and must suffer that penalty. There is a disposition on the part of doomed men to “die game;” and much of the apparent heartlessness is bravado only.

As I have said in a former letter, Fleming has for several days seemed indifferent or defiant. Whether he had faint hopes of pardon, I know not; but there seemed to be something in his manner that showed his reliance to some extent on the mobid [sic] humanitarianism of the age, (as exhibited in the case of the Malden murderer Greene,) and had not finally made up his mind for death.

Those who had not made human nature a study, were therefore unprepared to see the difference in demeanor of the two men, on the scaffold. Corbett, who, since his sentence, has seemed to realize his solemn situation, and has been much depressed, because, as his last moments drew near, cheerful and even jubilant, and the gloomy Court House echoed his hilarious merriment, which was startlingly horrible, as wild laughter wakened in the throat of death. There is something grotesquely awful in hearing a man laugh while the rope is around his neck. (The Republican reporter styled that death “ecstacies!” [sic] I had always supposed that ecstacy was less boisterous; but I am ready at all times to receive new ideas and novel definitions. — Who ever knew a man in Chicago to be wrong? “If any, speak, for him have I offended.”) The conduct of Flemming [sic] was in striking contrast. He seemed chilled with the thought of death, and was so lost in contemplation that he scarcely heard the voice of the clergyman admonishing him to pray.

He indeed repeated the words of the prayer, but so unconsciously that it seemed only mechanical. His eyes were vacantly staring, and his countenance was ghastly in its expression of deadly fear. Was that gaze fixed on vacancy alone? Was it a retrospective vision of the soul gazing on itself, and with reversed sight recalling all the past — the hours of childhood — the fleeting moments of early manhood — the years whose only noteworthy incidents were damning deeds of midnight robbery — that night of blood — that death-cry of his victim — the fatal shot — the flight — the vision of justice and the avenging Nemises [sic] following his track — the arrest — the trial — the death sentence, and the lingering death of expectation preceding its infliction? Or was there one more torture? Was his the gift of prescience, and the power to look beyond the Shadow of the Dark Valley, and was it what he there saw that transfixed him into a statue of cold horror? Who shall say?

Those were my reflections when I looked on the miserable man; and I unconsciously repeated to myself the heartfelt words of the psalmist: “Cut me not off, O, my God, in the midst of my days!”

I shuddered as I thought that the doomed one might be silently repeating the same prayer, and II, by mesmeric rapport or sympathy, had caught up his inaudible petition. Then came another hideous laugh from the lips of Corbett — a few hasty words of farewell — a slight gliding sound as the well oiled bolts slid swiftly back — and two forms shrouded in white cloth were spasmodically struggling with death. The drop was located in the east wing of the Court House, the trap being constructed in the floor. After the two surgeons in attendance had pronounced them both dead, the bodies were lowered into the coffins, as usual, and a few had a curiosity to look at the faces. Singular as it may seem, Flemming had undoubtedly suffered the least pain of the two. The features were somewhat distorted and discolored. But Corbett’s face was a sight such as one would look on but once, and wish to efface [sic] the memory of that one look, and think of it no more forever. The tongue protruded fearfully from the mouth, and the teeth had bitten through it, in that last agony of dissolution. Truly is an execution a moral lesson which no one may witness without a thrill of horror whatever one may think of the theory of capital punishment.

There was one fact in connection with the affair, which I cannot understand. The widow of the murdered man repeatedly made application to the Sheriff for permission to see the hanging and it was refused. At an early hour I saw a lady dressed in deep mourning standing at the Court House gate and I was informed that it was Mrs. Maloney. After all was over, she still stood there, shivering in the intense cold, the bitter freezing cold. It appears some one had told her that the men who had murdered her husband and left her desolate, would be reprieved, and that only increased her anxiety to see the sentence of the law fulfilled.

Hour after hour she waited, while stout men, wrapping more closely their overcoats and mufflers around them, hurried on more rapidly as they felt the keen blast which swept across the square. Several times she was assured that the criminals were hanged; but she refused to believe it, till an acquaintance in whom she had confidence told her, and then with an expression of relief and satisfaction on her face, she suddenly left for home, and I saw her no more. Poor woman! the wrong done her and her child had been avenged. Justice had vindicated itself. Who shall say but half the sorrow of bereavement was lifted from her heart by the knowledge that the slayers of her husband had tasted the bitter waters of death, held to their unwilling lips by the hand of Retribution? Why was it that the satisfaction of witnessing the punishment was denied her? I may be wrong, but I only repeat the sentiments of many men here and elsewhere when I say: Hangings should be public.

I have heard and read many objections to public executions; but I am convinced that whatever may be said of the rude and brutal deportment of the crowd — the levity — the profanity, &c. &c., I am convinced that no man ever saw an infliction of the Death Penalty, and forgot it. Men may read the long accounts given by newspaper reporters, but the reality beggars description. The reader can get but a very poor idea from the most graphic account, and like any other item of news, it is not long remembered. If the grand object is to warn men, by impressing on their minds the terrible consequences of crime, then that warning should be given in the most public manner possible.

When I commenced this communication I had no thought of making a plea for the gallows; and I will only say, that until some more fearful mode of punishing the crime of murder can be invented, hanging commends itself to the approval of reflecting people. It is a severe remedy, but it is the only effectual one; and those individuals who oppose capital punishment so zealously, may easily find other ways to vent their sentimentalism. Sympathy for those whom crime has injured would be better placed than sympathy for criminals. You will hear from me on this subject no more until Jeff. Davis is hanged, and then I shall probably have some comments to make, as I shall endeavor to “be there to see.”

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1941: The massacre at Skede in Liepaja

10 comments December 15th, 2013 Headsman

The World War II occupation of the Latvian town of Liepaja (Libau, to the Germans) produced mass executions throughout 1941.

This date in 1941 commenced one of the largest such actions: over 2,700 Jews as well as 23 Communists forced over the course of two-plus days to strip on the freezing Skede dunes overlooking the Baltic and there shot by German and Latvian teams into a vast pit. It’s one of the most recognizable Holocaust atrocities because it was extensively photographed.*

As one can see from the pictures, the victims here were mostly women.


Some of the women in this photographs can be identified by name (pdf). Left to right: (1) Sorella Epstein; (2) presumably Rosa Epstein, her mother; (3) unknown; (4) Mia Epstein; (5) unknown. Alternate identification makes Mia Epstein (5) instead of (4), and (2) Pauline Goldman.

Almost all of Liepaja’s Jews perished during the war.

* Germany’s Bundesarchiv (search on Libau 1941) confirms the precise December 15 dating for these images; it also has some other photographs of atrocities in Liepaja/Libau on other occasions.

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1655: Henry Manning, Protectorate spy

Add comment December 15th, 2011 Headsman

“There certainly can be no doubt,” wrote a Venetian diplomat late in the rule of Oliver Cromwell, “that Charles [II] is betrayed by some of those who stand about him, otherwise it would be impossible for Cromwell to find out the secret plans he meditates.”

And indeed, on this date* in 1655, just such a one was shot by the exiled royalists as a Protectorate spy.

Henry Manning, the son of a royalist colonel who died fighting for Charles’s late beheaded father, had impeccable credentials for the Stuarts. The alleged English king was now parked on the continent, trying to conjure up some route back to the throne.

So when the pedigreed Manning turned up at exile camp, packing “a considerable sum of money” he was willing to give to the cause, he was welcomed with open arms.

Too open.

While royalist courtiers blabbed, Manning was filing enciphered reports for Cromwell’s spy chief (and the source of that considerable sum of money) John Thurloe. And these reports disclosed royalist collaborators in England who were rounded up in great numbers in 1655 — a year in which Cromwell dissolved parliament and resorted to direct military rule, growing correspondingly more worried about plots against his person.

It seems that Cromwell’s intelligence men lacked a certain subtlety, however. After an English traveler illicitly met with Charles on the continent during the dead of night, and was picked up for questioning when he returned to the island, the Stuart men naturally reasoned that only the small handful of people involved in that meeting could have been the mole. Manning was done for as soon as his apartments were searched.

Under interrogation, Manning gave up everything he knew, trying desperately to save his skin by offers of turning double-agent and exploiting his relationship with the Protectorate for the royalists’ benefit.** As late as December 14 the captured spy — hearing “sad rumours of a sudden end intended me, nay, to-morrow morning” — addressed a letter to royal aide Edward Nicholas, “humbly crav[ing] you would once more try his most gratious Majesty.”

His Majesty’s concern, however, was of fading into ridiculousness and irrelevance, and the play here was to make an example of treachery. Without apparent legal sanction — the word of the shadow king Charles was law enough here, and his German hosts were content to look the other way — Manning was pistoled to death in a woods outside of Cologne, and the fact made known abroad.

Everyone who’s had a look at Henry Manning agrees that the guy was a small and abject man, easy prey for these great ministers of state. But then, when Thurloe himself was arrested for treason upon the monarchy’s eventual restoration, he procured his own parole by spilling his secrets to King Charles.

* The Gregorian date, per the Holy Roman Empire where Manning was shot — not the Julian date still in use in England. Note as well that the 15th is the most readily inferred date from the available evidence, particularly Manning’s letter of the 14th, but that the event itself does not appear to have been affirmatively recorded on this (or any) specific date by contemporaries. There’s little room for variance, as correspondents are commenting on the death of Manning by the end of December.

** “The end and aim of spying in all its five varieties is knowledge of the enemy; and this knowledge can only be derived, in the first instance, from the converted spy. Hence it is essential that the converted spy be treated with the utmost liberality.” –Sun Tzu

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Espionage,Execution,Germany,History,Holy Roman Empire,No Formal Charge,Shot,Spies,Summary Executions,Uncertain Dates

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1965: Joseph Bamina, former Burundi Premier

Add comment December 15th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1965, 24 Burundians were shot following mass trials in the stormy aftermath of an attempted coup.

Burundi met post-colonial independence deprived by an assassin’s bullet of the popular, unifying figure who might have kept ethnic conflict under control, and many years of living dangerously ensued as Hutu and Tutsi grappled for power.

On October 18, 1965, a group of Hutu officers attempted a coup d’etat against Burundi’s monarchy — and failed.

the events of October 1965 carried momentous consequences. The mutineers took a huge gamble and lost … power became the exclusive monopoly of Tutsi elements.

… In the capital, virtually every Hutu leader was apprehended.

-Rene Lamarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide

While the putschists were unsurprisingly executed, the Tutsi-authored backlash cast a much wider net, ultimately claiming up to 5,000 lives. (It was only a dress rehearsal for a similar scenario — Hutu rebellion triggering massive Tutsi crackdown — that resulted in a full-on genocide in 1972.)

Various executions peppered the weeks after the intended coup; this date’s was one of the last of the particularly noteworthy. The New York Times (Dec. 21, 1965) described those “executed in the Central African kingdom Wednesday after mass trials” as “Joseph Bamina,* a former Burundi Premier … [and] 23 others included two prominent political leaders.”

Burundi did not live happily ever after.

* Lamarchand calls Bamina one of the “hard-core Hutu opposition.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Burundi,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Heads of State,History,Mass Executions,Politicians,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot

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1983: John Eldon Smith, mafioso Willy Loman

3 comments December 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1983, Georgia’s electric chair* got its first use in 19 years.

The Headsman is not a theologian, but does believe John Eldon Smith’s quotable last words

Well, the Lord is going to get another one.

— would be conditioned on the Lord’s policy on crimes like this:

Joseph [Ronald] Akins’ former wife, appellant Rebecca Akins Smith Machetti, together with her husband, appellant John Eldon Smith, a/k/a Anthony Isalldo Machetti, a/k/a Tony Machetti** … plotted the death of Joseph Akins with the intent of redeeming the proceeds of Akins’ insurance policies, and other benefits, the beneficiaries of which were Mrs. Machetti and her three daughters by her marriage to Akins … appellant Tony Machetti drove to Macon, Georgia … contacted Ronald Akins and lured him into the area of the crime, ostensibly to install a television antenna … when he and his wife arrived at the appointed time the appellant Tony Machetti killed both of them with a shotgun.

Trial testimony against Smith said that the insurance salesman was hoping with his shotgun-slaying prowess to become a made man.

And the supposed last words, it should be noted, are not apparent on the secret audio recording of the execution, available here, although the religious theme presents itself in the form of a Catholic benediction. The rest is all clinical efficiency, a far cry from the next year’s dreadful botch.

The Dec. 16, 1983 New York Times report — executions were still oddities that drew national coverage at this time — quoted a witness remarking on the “antiseptic and sterile” process, which the Times writer described thus:

A square of material was draped over Mr. Smith’s face and a leather-strapped cap containing an electrode was placed over his head.

So tightly was he strapped to the chair, witnesses said, it was difficult to tell when the three unidentified executioners pressed three small buttons, one of which sent 2,000 volts of electricity through the condemned man’s body for two minutes. According to prison tradition, none of the executioners knew if his was the lethal button.

Far more noteworthy than either the day’s procedure or its subject was the context of a noticeably accelerating execution pace.

From resumption of executions in 1977 through 1982, there had been only six people put to death in the U.S.; Smith capped a year with five more, including back-to-back days (Robert Wayne Williams had been electrocuted in Louisiana on December 14).

Anti-death penalty lawyer and activist Henry Schwarzschild was quoted in the article bemoaning “a new period where executions are utterly likely” and prophesying 30 to 50 in the year ahead thanks to prisoners’ appeals expiring.

There were, in the event, 21 American executions during the ensuing twelvemonth, almost tripling the country’s total up to that time; the annual total has never since 1983 returned to single digits.

* One of several electric chairs named “Old Sparky”

** The non-wiseguy name’s similarity to a John McCain alias is presumably pure coincidence.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Georgia,Milestones,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1914: Regiment Mixte de Tirailleurs decimated

2 comments December 15th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1914, the French army decimated a regiment of its Tunisian soldiers for retreating.

Seriously, decimation? In the 20th century?

Even the most jaded navigator of World War I’s extensive stock of horror may be gobsmacked to find that military executions in this conflict extended to the Roman-pioneered practice of imposing collective punishment on a unit by killing a random tenth of it. Little more is evidently available about this situation online, but the idea of the French military selecting randomly for salutary executions is used in Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory where one officer, charged with providing an enlisted man for trial, simply has them all draw lots.

And according to Gilbert Meynier’s L’Algérie Révélée: La guerre de. 1914–1918 et le premier quart du XX sie`cle (French review), African soldiers’ experience in the Great War with incidents like this tended to underscore France’s colonial domination … and helped contribute to the national identity-forming that would break the French grip on North Africa as the century unfolded.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Chosen by Lot,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Occupation and Colonialism,Piracy,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Theft,Tunisia,Uncategorized,Wartime Executions

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