1605: Niklaus von Gulchen, Nuremberg privy councillor

Add comment December 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1605, Nuremberg privy councillor Niklaus von Gulchen (or Gilgen) was beheaded for his scandalous corruption. The wheeler-dealer’s graft had problematically extended to playing false with and backstabbing any number of elite patrons, from Nuremberg burghers all the way up to the Prince of Sulzbach, and even gone so far as to provide advice to foreigners against the interest of his own city.

The great executioner Franz Schmidt, whose many diary entries record (often tersely) the hundreds of hangings, beheadings, drownings, burnings, and breakings on the wheel he performed for Nuremberg over his lifetime, made an unusually voluminous entry for this shocking treachery. And from the sound of it, the duplicitous Master Doctor earned every drop of his executioner’s opprobrium — even if, according to Schmidt’s biographer, the malefactor’s misused position still entitled him to the privilege of execution by the sword, exemption from torture, and a dignified black cloak to wear to his last performance.

December 23rd (a Monday).* Master Doctor Nicholas von Gilgen, who was by appointment a privy councillor in an honourable council and was bound to that council by oaths he did not observe; for the sake of money received wrote for and advised two (opposite) parties in many affairs; also gave evidence and sat in council for deliberations and decisions; also stole from my lords of this town the allowances for beer and wine, causing it to be stored by his servants.

Also he debauched before her marriage, forcing her to do his will, his servant whom he brought from Trier to this town, and whom he gave as a wife to his clerk Philip Tumbler, by a promise of 50 florins and large presents. According to her declaration she brought forth five children by him, three of which miscarried during delivery or by fright in the twelfth week, two remaining alive, a boy and girl, he being sponsor to the boy at baptism.

Similarly, by like promises, he forced his under-maid to consent to his will a year ago, and tried likewise to persuade his brother’s two daughters; one, the wife of Doctor Wurffbaum, he tried to compel, but she resisted, the other the wife of Doctor Calrot, who yielded to his will and consorted with him before and after her marriage, according to her account through fear and compulsion and the promise of many presents and a wedding portion (he did not admit he compelled her, and I do not believe he forced her).

Lastly he played false when serving the Prince of Sultzbach, whose advocate he was; he also mediated dishonestly between the families of Nuremberg, and between the noble families of Leschwitz and Redwitz, writing to, and advising both parties in one affair. Likewise he counselled the Italian Charles Albert Nello and other Italians against the rulers of our town; also stole the decrees from the office of an honourable councillor.

In Italy too, at Padua, he produced a false certificate, when he figured as a doctor there by means of a false certificate, for he became a doctor at Basel only long after. For his evil deeds he lay in prison for thirty-eight weeks in Lugins Land and in the jail. He was led out on Monday by favour in a long mourning cloak, his arms bound behind him with a black silk cord, and led by a cord, a black cloth being spread on the seat (on the scaffold).


Niklaus von Gulchen’s beheading, from the Nuremberg chronicle. Note that the illustration portrays the doomed pol kneeling, when in fact he was beheaded in a chair. In any stance, von Gulchen “was a mischievious, gold-grubbing man,” according to the chronicler.

When he had been beheaded his body was wrapped in the cloth and laid in a wooden coffin, nailed down and taken to St. Peter’s church by the assistant executioner, but removed at night in a cart to St. John’s by the little gate that leads to the Butts, and buried in the graveyard by the walls.

* Nuremberg, a Protestant city, was still on the Julian calendar.

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1926: Petrus Stephanus Hauptfleisch, mother-murderer

Add comment December 23rd, 2012 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

At 7:00 a.m. on this date in 1926, alcoholic and all-around loser Petrus Hauptfleisch was hanged in South Africa for the murder of his elderly mother nearly two years earlier. The case is detailed in Rob Marsh’s book Famous South African Crimes, available to read for free here.

Hauptfleisch had lived with his mother well into adulthood. When World War I started, he joined the army and served in Europe for four years.

After his return to South Africa in 1919, he demonstrated signs of having grown up a bit: he got a job as a butcher, married and had a young child. He and his wife fought constantly, however. He had a violent temper and drank heavily, to the extent that eventually none of the local businesses would sell him liquor anymore.

Finally his wife left him and he moved back in with Mom, but he was abusive to her as well and over Christmas 1924 she had him arrested after he threatened to kill her.

But once he sobered up and was released from custody, Mom let him move back in. Perhaps she felt she had to, since Petrus was haupt-fleisch und blut. Whatever her reason, the sins of the son were soon visited upon the mother.

Hauptfleisch claimed his mother accidentally set the kitchen on fire on January 13, 1925 and burned to death. The autopsy, however, didn’t support his story: all indications were that Mrs. Hauptfleisch had been suffocated or strangled to death and then burned afterward. There was no sign of soot or ashes in her bronchial tube or lungs, strong evidence that she hadn’t been breathing when the fire started, and there were other indications of asphyxiation. The postmortem lividity indicated she’d been lying flat on her back at the time of death, not face-down as Hauptfleisch said he’d found her.

Authorities believed Hauptfleisch was driven to homicide partly because of greed (he was the sole heir to his mother’s £600 estate) and partly out of personal rancor over that whole arrest thing.

After he was convicted and the sentence of death was passed upon him, Hauptfleisch issued a statement acknowledging that he had not been a good son, but protesting his innocence of this “most dastardly” crime. He would maintain his innocence until he died.

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1799: Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas, anti-slavery insurrectionist

Add comment December 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1799, Portuguese Jew Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas was publicly hanged in in Kingston for attempting to incite a slave revolt in the British colony of Jamaica.

Here in a revolutionary age, probably no insurrection could terrify Europe’s ancien regimes like the Haitian Revolution.

History’s most successful slave revolt, the rising that seized Saint-Domingue from the French conceivably threatened — if it should spread — the entire material foundation of Europe’s colonial exploitation, and the racist intellectual superstructure that justified it.

This nightmare of crowned heads was also the dream of the epoch’s visionaries, and the subject of a struggle whose victims included Isaac Yeshurun Sasportas among many, many others.

Domingue if I do

An insurrection of Caribbean slaves against European exploiters had obvious appeal to their brethren groaning at the bottom of the Atlantic economy. In “Saint Domingue in Virginia: Ideology, Local Meanings, and Resistance to Slavery, 1790-1800″ (Journal of Southern History, Aug. 1997) James Sidbury explores the (to whites) nerve-wracking arrival in that U.S. state of both news and refugees from revolutionary Saint-Domingue.

In 1793 Willis Wilson complained to Governor Lee of the “defenceless situation” of the town of Portsmouth, whose militia lacked arms and whose streets contained “many hundreds [of] French Negroes” including, Wilson had been “inform’d,” many who “belong[ed] tothe insurrection of Hispaniola.” … a commander at the state arsenal of Point of Fork — located on the James River west of Richmond and southesat of Charlottesville — reported dangerous “conversations amount the “people of colour” … “particularly since the Arrival of the French from C[ap] F[rancois],” Saint Domingue.

While these currents carried along Gabriel Prosser and a young Denmark Vesey, they also swept up men who were not slaves at all.

Isaac Sasportas, the nephew of a prominent Charleston trader (said trader’s 200-year-old home still stands there), was himself a wealthy Caribbean shipper who in the 1790s seems to have taken a nearly professional interest in revolution. After trying and failing to re-ignite a rebellion in Dutch Curacao, he started zeroing in on Haiti’s next-door neighbor, the brutal British sugar colony of Jamaica. Distinguished as it was by a running history of slave revolts, it was a natural target for the fin de siecle‘s savvy revolution-exporter.

Sasportas landed there in 1799 under cover of his gadabout-merchant act to reconnoiter British defenses and make contact with the island’s maroons.

Diplomatic L’Ouverture

The Haitian Revolution’s progress through the 1790s and into the first years of the 19th century was itself a complicated political process entailing the realest of realpolitik. Here was a colony surrounded by rival empires’ outposts, whose home country was itself engulfed in revolution. This could, and did, cut a lot of different ways.

Legendary national liberator Toussaint L’Ouverture agreed to work with the French revolutionary government in April 1793 to repel the inroads of Brits, who smelled an opportunity to swipe the lucrative colony. Alliance with the French (L’Ouverture’s black regiments served under French colors) came in exchange for the French recognizing emancipation. Win-win.

But the script had flipped by the last years of the decade.

Toussaint L’Ouverture reveals to British officer Thomas Maitland papers from the French representative d’Hedouville.

In 1798, the British were evacuating their Saint-Domingue enclaves … and L’Ouverture, now the Bonaparte figure of a somewhat autonomous polity, had to maneuver it regionally vis-a-vis its neighbors.

Fomenting slave rebellions willy-nilly was not on his agenda. Indeed, “one could even describe Louverture, in the diplomatic field, as an active impediment to the spread of emancipation.”*

So far was the former slave L’Ouverture from anti-slavery firebrand that in 1798-99 he made arrangements with the slave powers Britain and the United States, helping them oppose the French. And when the French envoy went to work on the grab-Jamaica scheme with Sasportas as an agent — Paris now being the one to smell an opportunity to steal a rival’s colony — L’Ouverture found it expedient to play along whilst quietly tipping the British to the whole plot. In effect, L’Ouverture shopped Sasportas.

Louverture could have used his newfound power to advocate independence and emancipation across the Caribbean; he decided otherwise.

Napoleon Bonaparte and other French leaders hoped that Louverture would turn Saint-Domingue into the centerpiece of a revolutionary French empire in the Americas. With an army of twenty thousand veteran black soldiers, Louverture could have threatened France’s enemies in North America, most notably British Jamaica and the United States. But Louverture declined the offer, choosing instead to sign secret treaies of nonaggression and commerce with these two countries in 1799 …

That same year, the French agent Roume drafted an ambitious plan to use part of Louverture’s army to invade British Jamaica. After the landing, Roume redicted, Jamaica’s slaves would revolt and join local maroons and Dominguian liberators on a victorious march to Kingston. Dominguian troops would become heralds of freedom, France would acquire a lucrative colony at little cost, and the expedition would deal a mortal blow to British commerce. Louverture acquiesced in public, but in private he notified British and U.S. authorities of Roume’s bellicose plans. England subsequently captured France’s secret agent in Jamaica, a French Jew named Isaac Sasportas, and the entire venture foundered. Having apparently concluded that an expedition would divert key troops and resources that were needed to secure his power base in Saint-Domingue, Louverture chose to sacrifice the Jamaiacans’ freedom on the altar of his own ambitions. Jamaican slaves would remain in bondage until 1834.

- From Haiti: The Tumultuous History — From Pearl of the Caribbean to Broken Nation

Haiti the Game

Whether one rates it as dextrous statecraft or unconscionble betrayal, L’Ouverture’s maneuvering to maintain a scope of action for himself and his fledgling nation would continue until 1802. It featured brutal continuation of Haiti’s cash crop plantation economy — now worked by cultivateurs supporting black elites, instead of slaves supporting French elites — rough suppression of labor protests, high-minded assertion of racial equality, and unsentimental diplomatic skullduggery shifting arrangents among France, Britain, and the U.S. He even bought slaves to regenerate the half-island’s labor force, decimated by years of warfare.

In the end, this Bonaparte of Haiti was undone by the Bonaparte of France** in 1802, with the full support of the British. During a lull in those nations’ hostilities, they found frank agreement that “Toussaint’s black empire” was to neither’s liking — and “We both want to destroy Jacobinism, especially that of the blacks”.† L’Ouverture played the diplomatic game very adroitly, but he had no card to match a mutual agreement of white privilege among his opposite numbers.

Toussaint L’Ouverture died of pneumonia in a French dungeon … but his countrymen rallied against the French incursion and completed the Haitian Revolution. Its independence day is January 1, 1804.‡

* Philippe R. Girard, “Black Talleyrand: Toussaint Louverture’s Diplomacy, 1798-1802,” The William and Mary Quarterly, Jan. 2009

** Napoleon’s wife Josephine was herself of Caribbean aristocratic stock: she grew up on her family’s sugar plantation in Martinique.

† Prime Minister Henry Addington, as quoted in The Slaves Who Defeated Napoleon: Toussaint Louverture and the Haitian War of Independence, 1801-1804. Thomas Jefferson, fretting “another Algiers in the seas of America,” also kinda-sorta went along with the idea, although Jefferson was at least equally concerned about a potential French resurgence keyed by its unruly Caribbean base; for America, this politicking set up the Louisiana Purchase, and that transaction was considerably facilitated by the French failure to re-establish control in Haiti after arresting L’Ouverture.

‡ In one last warped expression of colonialism — and a dreadful preview of the ruinous debt peonage more familiar to our present day — Haiti had to pay “reparations” to France for the loss to the French empire of itself, Haiti. It made these payments until 1947. France has no plans to repair the reparations.

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1942: Sasha Filippov, during the Battle of Stalingrad

3 comments December 23rd, 2010 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this day in 1942 in Stalingrad, Russia, seventeen-year-old shoemaker and spy Sasha Fillipov was executed by the German Army for espionage. The Battle of Stalingrad, which had been in progress since July, was bleeding the city white and would continue to do so until the following February. Young Sasha would be just one of over two million casualties.


One death, millions of deaths. Stalin had a quote about that.

Sasha, who had already become a master cobbler, simultaneously volunteered his shoemaking services for the invading German Army and his spying services for the Russian Army. He became a regular behind German lines, and as he made and repaired their shoes and boots he also stole documents, made note of whatever military activity he could see, eavesdropped on conversations and reported it all to the Russians.

Eventually he was discovered, and two days before Christmas he and two other teenagers were led barefoot through the snow and hung from acacia trees on Bryanskaya Street. His parents were there to witness the execution, but his father couldn’t bear to watch and ran away. He also left a ten-year-old brother.

In 1944 he was posthumously awarded the Order of the Red Banner for his services to Russia. The street where he died was renamed after him, as was a school on that street. Today, however, Sasha is most remembered for being a minor character in the wildly-inaccurate-but-still-a-thrill-to-watch film, Enemy at the Gates. Sasha in the movie is portrayed as a much younger boy, about twelve years old, and is played by Gabriel Thomson.

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1953: Lavrenty Beria, Stalin henchman

6 comments December 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Stalin’s feared minister Lavrenty Beria was shot — finally on the receiving end of the cruelty he had administered to countless Soviet citizens.

Lavrenty Pavlovich was, like Stalin, a Georgian peasant, albeit one generation younger.

He won his way into Stalin’s confidence from the 1920′s, and in 1938 replaced Nikolai Yezhov as head of the KGB predecessor NKVD. Yezhov did much of the bloody work of the Great Purge, and was himself in turn purged. The cunning Beria must have taken note.

Though his initial project was to clean up the excesses of the Yezhovshchina — releasing thousands of innocent convicts, making the gulag camps less homicidal and more effective and keeping prisoners alive long enough to get some work out of them, that sort of thing — it wasn’t long before Beria cast a terrifying shadow of his own. (Beria was Yezhov’s deputy, so it’s not like he walked into the job without the requisite qualifications for mass murder.) He wrote the memo proposing the execution of Polish officers that led to the Katyn massacre.

To the more everyday repressive operations of the Soviet secret police, Beria added his notorious (perhaps propagandistically exaggerated?) personal peccadilloes: nothing to trouble the boss, just a little penchant for seducing, or raping, and at his pleasure murdering, comely young lasses.

Soviet author Sergei Dovlatov sketched his character in this imagined vignette (translated by Executed Today friend Sonechka from the Russian original here):

As is well known, winsome high school girls were delivered to Lavrenty Beria’s house. Then his chauffeur presented a bouquet of flowers to the next victim. And rendered her home. This was an established ceremony. Suddenly, one of the damsels became unruly. She began to struggle and scratch. In short, held her ground and did not succumb to the charms of the Internal Affairs minister. Beria told her:

-You can leave.

The young woman descended the stairs. The chauffeur, not expecting such a turn of events, handed her over the prepared bouquet. The girl, somewhat more composed now, addressed the minister who was standing on the balcony:

-You see, Lavrenty Pavlovich! Your chauffeur is more courteous than you are. He gave me a bouquet of flowers.

Beria sneered and dully uttered:

-You are mistaken. It is not a bouquet. It is a funeral wreath.

More consequential for his fate was his position among the handful of Stalin’s closest associates, in which capacity he maintained himself for a remarkably extended period of time. This made him one of the people with a shot at succeeding Stalin, which in turn put him in the middle of the furious political infighting Uncle Joe was pleased to subject his subordinates to.

And the natural enmity between sovereign and heir — the one whose interest is the other’s death — may have even led Beria to poison Stalin in March 1953 when he was on the verge of a falling-out himself. Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (he of the pact, and the cocktail) remembered in his memoir Beria boasting after Stalin’s sudden and mysterious death,

“I did him in! I saved all of you!”

Briefly the official #2 man in the post-Stalin state, he would again preside over a political liberalization that belied his monstrous personal reputation.

But this pallbearer of Stalin soon followed his former master to the grave. Outmaneuvered by rivals Nikita Khrushchev, Georgy Malenkov, and Molotov, Beria was purged as a traitor in the summer of 1953 and secretly executed Dec. 23, 1953 with six confederates after a summary trial before the Supreme Court. (One of the expedients laid at his feet in that affair was a set of executions he had ordered in a 1941 purge).

According to a chapter by Michael Ross and Anne E. Wilson in Memory, Brain and Belief, after Beria’s fall, subscribers to the Great Soviet Encyclopedia

were instructed to destroy the article on Beria and were provided additional information on the Bering Strait to fill the gap in the pages.

Beria’s heirs actually applied to the post-Soviet government for a reversal of the conviction under laws granting victims of politically motivated prosecutions right of redress. The Russian judiciary turned them down.

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1948: Hideki Tojo and six other Japanese war criminals

18 comments December 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1948, seven “Class A” war criminals, including Japan’s wartime Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, were hanged at Sugamo Prison by the American occupation authorities.

Like other Axis heads of state, Tojo was in for a bad end: he shot himself in the chest before American troops could arrest him, but missed his heart even though a doctor had helpfully marked the spot on his chest for him.


Fail.

However inevitable Tojo’s postwar fate, however, he was not exactly of a kind with the likes of Hitler and Mussolini. Indeed, he’d been cashiered from his Prime Ministerial gig in 1944 by the real power behind the throne — the Japanese military.

Unlike the “Fuhrer” and “Il Duce,” Tojo was a reflector, not a creator, of national thought. His word was not law. It was not his command or dictate. He was one among many and not even the first among equals. He was a militarist — misguided, naive, and narrow in outlook; he regarded war as a legitimate instrument of national policy; he apparently believed what he told the court, and failed to recognize the patent contradictions between his contentions and the facts. This had been his undoing.

That’s Robert Butow in Tojo and the Coming of War. Butow argues that the titular authority in Japan (he became Prime Minister shortly before the bombing of Pearl Harbor), a dedicated, patriotic officer of adequate talents but limited vision, came much too late and controlled much too little to be seen as the equal of the European theater’s villains.

The Japan of which General Hideki Tojo became premier was operated by remote control. It was a country in which puppet politics had reached a high state of development, to the detriment of the national welfare. The ranking members of the military services were the robots of their subordinates — the so-called chuken shoko, the nucleus group, which was active “at the center” and which was composed largely of field-grade officers. They, in turn, were influenced by younger elements within the services at large and by ultranationalists outside military ranks. The civilian members of the cabinet were the robots of the military — especially of the nucleus group, working through the service ministers and the chiefs of the army and navy general staffs. The Emperor himself, through no fault of his own, was the robot of the government — of the cabinet and the supreme command, a prisoner of the circumstances into which he was born … Finally, the nation — the one hundred million dedicated souls, the sum and substance of Japan, from whom the blood and toil and tears and sweat of Churchill’s phrase were wrung — the nation was the robot of the throne.

He was the man for his time and place. He fit right in.

Even when being fitted for a noose.

Once Tojo had recovered from his errant self-inflicted wound,* and even though he had been among those opposing surrender even after the atomic bombings, he played ball with the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (whose trial transcripts run to 50,000 pages).

The former premier embraced responsibility, diligently shielding the Emperor from any intimation of guilt (some argue this was the procedure’s entire raison d’etre, from the perspective of both the prosecution and the defense), and walked a dignified and honorable last mile in the courtrooms of the victor’s justice, presenting his perspective as he knew it in the context of a wish for peace between the late antagonists.

1. I deny that Japan “declared war on civilization.”

2. To advocate a New Order was to seek freedom and respect for peoples without prejudice, and to seek a stable basis for the existence all peoples, equally, and free of threats. Thus, it was to seek true civilization and true justice for all the peoples of the world, and to view this as the destruction of personal freedom and respect is to be assailed by the hatred and emotion of war, and to make hasty judgments.

3. I would like to point out their [my accusers'] inhumane and uncivilized actions in East Asia ever since the Middle Ages.

4. In the shadow of the prosperity of Europe and America, the colored peoples of East Asia and Africa have been sacrificed and forced into a state of semi-colonization. I would point out that the cultural advance of these people has been suppressed in the past and continues to be suppressed in the present by policies designed to keep them in ignorance.

5. I would point out that Japan’s proposal at the Versailles Peace Conference on the principle of racial equality was rejected by delegates such as those from Britain and the United States.

6. Of two through five above, which is civilization? Which is international justice? Justice has nothing to do with victor nations and vanquished nations, but must be a moral standard that all the world’s peoples can agree to. To seek this and to achieve it — that is true civilization.

7. In order to understand this, all nations must hate war, forsake emotion, reflect upon their pasts, and think calmly.

The “Class A” convicts not executed along with Tojo were freed afterwards.

Tojo has enjoyed a bit of a latter-day resurgence in the public regard, product of the nationalist right’s resurgence in Japan. The hanged man’s granddaughter Yuko Tojo has waged a tireless campaign to clear him.

Further to that end, his ashes — and those of the other Class A convicts — were covertly added to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and remain there to this day. That public tribute to principals of Japan’s bloody foreign occupations has become a hot political football between Japan and other nations, especially China.

But after all, Tojo the man was never a leper, but part and parcel of his times. Small wonder that we moderns hear an echo of the general’s postwar justification for the War in the Pacific from the country that hanged him.

Japan … faced considerable military threats as well.

Japan attempted to circumvent these dangerous circumstances by diplomatic negotiation, and though Japan heaped concession upon concession, in the hope of finding a solution through mutual compromise, there was no progress because the United States would not retreat from its original position. …

Since events had progressed as they had, it became clear that to continue in this manner was to lead the nation to disaster. With options thus foreclosed, in order to protect and defend the nation and clear the obstacles that stood in its path, a decisive appeal to arms was made.

The problematic nature of the war crimes proceedings in postwar Japan (especially vis-a-vis those in Germany) is examined in Yuma Totani’s The Tokyo War Crimes Trial: The Pursuit of Justice in the Wake of World War II. The author discussed her research on the New Books In History podcast.

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* According to John Dower’s Embracing Defeat, the suicide scenario angered some nationalists because Tojo only “belatedly summoned the will to die,” and “chose the foreigner’s way of the bullet rather than the samurai’s way of the sword, and then botched even this.”

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