1502: Vitellozzo Vitelli and Oliverotto da Fermo, Borgia casualties

Add comment December 31st, 2013 Headsman

On New Year’s Eve 1502, Cesare Borgia had two treacherous condottieri put to summary death at Senigallia.


The Showtime series The Borgias got canceled before it reached this particular depredation in Cesare Borgia’s career.

The “nephew” — that is, son — of Pope Alexander VI, Cesare resigned a cardinalcy in 1498 to follow his true passion, bloodshed, and set up as one of the Italian peninsula’s warring dukes. He had many a martial adventure before getting ambushed by a party of Spanish knights in 1507. Machiavelli considered him an able leader fatally compromised by owing his temporal power to the pope’s territorial allotment. In The Prince, Machiavelli remarks on the lesson of Borgia’s reign, that “he who has not first laid his foundations may be able with great ability to lay them afterwards, but they will be laid with trouble to the architect and danger to the building” — and yet Cesare Borgia’s own fall months after his patron paterfamilias passed “was not his fault, but the extraordinary and extreme malignity of fortune.”

Cesare went from victory to victory in the first years of the sixteenth century, enough so that he threatened to make himself hegemonic in Italy. Several of his own allies, of which our day’s principals Vitellozzo Vitelli (his family ruled Citta di Castello and Oliverotto da Fermo* (lord of Fermo) were two, began plotting against him and sent out feelers to build an anti-Borgia alliance among small powers who fretted the prospective domination of Cesare. (Though Borgia had them killed on a separate occasion, the others of note for purposes of this post are two members of the powerful Orsini family — Francesco Orsini, known as the Duke di Gravina; and, Cardinal Pagolo.)

As Florence’s own representative to Borgia’s court during the events in question, Machiavelli had a first-person view of events and recorded them in some detail. Taken on the back foot momentarily, Borgia stalled, firmed up his relations with friendly cities like Florence, and beat a momentarily tactical retreat. He came to terms with his friends-cum-rivals, who once more resumed campaigning on Borgia’s side.

Putatively back on the same team, several of the plotters soon found themselves at a stalemate besieging Senigallia, which refused to surrender to any but Borgia himself. They were therefore required to summon the dangerous prince from Lombardy. True to his name, Borgia did not miss the opportunity of an innocent invitation to destroy his foes.

Borgia marched into Seniallia with 10,000 infantrymen and 2,000 cavalry for a friendly little reunion. According to Machiavelli (who in this passage refers to Borgia as Duke Valentino, or simply as “the duke”),

Vitellozzo, Pagolo, and the Duke di Gravina on mules, accompanied by a few horsemen, went towards the duke; Vitellozo, unarmed and wearing a cape lined with green, appeared very dejected, as if conscious of his approaching death — a circumstance which, in view of the ability of the man and his former fortune, caused some amazement. And it is said that when he parted from his men before setting out for Sinigalia to meet the duke he acted as if it were his last parting from them. He recommended his house and its fortunes to his captains, and advised his nephews that it was not the fortune of their house, but the virtues of their fathers that should be kept in mind. These three, therefore, came before the duke and saluted him respectfully, and were received by him with goodwill; they were at once placed between those who were commissioned to look after them.

But the duke noticing that Oliverotto, who had remained with his band in Sinigalia, was missing — for Oliverotto was waiting in the square before his quarters near the river, keeping his men in order and drilling them — signalled with his eye to Don Michelle, to whom the care of Oliverotto had been committed, that he should take measures that Oliverotto should not escape. Therefore Don Michele rode off and joined Oliverotto, telling him that it was not right to keep his men out of their quarters, because these might be taken up by the men of the duke; and he advised him to send them at once to their quarters and to come himself to meet the duke. And Oliverotto, having taken this advice, came before the duke, who, when he saw him, called to him; and Oliverotto, having made his obeisance, joined the others.

So the whole party entered Sinigalia, dismounted at the duke’s quarters, and went with him into a secret chamber, where the duke made them prisoners; he then mounted on horseback, and issued orders that the men of Oliverotto and the Orsini should be stripped of their arms. Those of Oliverotto, being at hand, were quickly settled, but those of the Orsini and Vitelli, being at a distance, and having a presentiment of the destruction of their masters, had time to prepare themselves, and bearing in mind the valour and discipline of the Orsinian and Vitellian houses, they stood together against the hostile forces of the country and saved themselves.

But the duke’s soldiers, not being content with having pillaged the men of Oliverotto, began to sack Sinigalia, and if the duke had not repressed this outrage by killing some of them they would have completely sacked it. Night having come and the tumult being silenced, the duke prepared to kill Vitellozzo and Oliverotto; he led them into a room and caused them to be strangled. Neither of them used words in keeping with their past lives: Vitellozzo prayed that he might ask of the pope full pardon for his sins; Oliverotto cringed and laid the blame for all injuries against the duke on Vitellozzo. Pagolo and the Duke di Gravina Orsini were kept alive until the duke heard from Rome that the pope had taken the Cardinal Orsino, the Archbishop of Florence, and Messer Jacopo da Santa Croce. After which news, on 18th January 1502, in the castle of Pieve, they also were strangled in the same way.

* Machiavelli also wrote up Oliverotto in The Prince.

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1987: Seven Suriname Maroons

Add comment December 31st, 2012 Headsman

This New Year’s Eve, we pay a visit to a notorious atrocity* 25 years ago today during Suriname’s Guerrilla War (Binnenlandse Oorlog).

The full judgment of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on this matter is available in pdf form here. (There’s more analysis of the reparations awarded by the court in the August 1995 Human Rights Quarterly.)

Inter-American Court of Human Rights
Case of Aloeboetoe et al. v. Suriname
Judgment of September 10, 1993

1. The instant case was brought to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (hereinafter “the Court”) by the Commission on August 27, 1990 … the Commission asserted that “the Government of Suriname violated Articles 1, 2, 4(1), 5(1), 5(2), 7(1), 7(2), 7(3), 25(1) and 25(2) of the American Convention on Human Rights” …

2. … The events that gave rise to the petition apparently occurred on December 31, 1987, in Atjoni (village of Pokigron, District of Sipaliwini) and in Tjongalangapassi, District of Brokopondo. In Atjoni, more than 20 male, unarmed Bushnegroes (Maroons) had been attacked, abused and beaten with riflebutts by a group of soldiers. A number of them had been wounded with bayonets and knives and were detained on suspicion of belonging to the Jungle Commando, a subversive group. Some 50 persons witnessed these occurrences.

3. According to the petition, the Maroons all denied that they were members of the Jungle Commando. The Captain of the village of Gujaba made a point of informing the commander in charge of the soldiers that the persons in question were civilians from various different villages. The commander disregarded this information.

4. The petition asserts that the soldiers allowed some of the Maroons to continue on their way, but that seven of them, including a 15-year old boy, were dragged, blindfolded, into a military vehicle and taken through Tjongalangapassi in the direction of Paramaribo. The names of the persons taken by the soldiers, their place and date of birth, insofar as is known, are as follows: Daison Aloeboetoe, of Gujaba, born June 7, 1960; Dedemanu Aloeboetoe, of Gujaba; Mikuwendje Aloeboetoe, of Gujaba, born February 4, 1973; John Amoida, of Asindonhopo (resident of Gujaba); Richenel Voola, alias Aside or Ameikanbuka, of Grantatai (found alive); Martin Indisie Banai, of Gujaba, born June 3, 1955; and, Beri Tiopo, of Gujaba (cf. infra, paras. 65 and 66).

5. The petition goes on to state that the vehicle stopped when it came to Kilometer 30. The soldiers ordered the victims to get out or forcibly dragged them out of the vehicle. They were given a spade and ordered to start digging. Aside [Richenel Voola] was injured while trying to escape, but was not followed. The other six Maroons were killed.

6. The petition states that on Saturday, January 2, 1988, a number of men from Gujaba and Grantatai set out for Paramaribo to seek information on the seven victims from the authorities. They called on the Coordinator of the Interior at Volksmobilisatie and on the Military Police at Fort Zeeland, where they tried to see the Head of S-2. Without obtaining any information regarding the whereabouts of the victims, they returned to Tjongalangapassi on Monday, January 4. At Kilometer 30 they came across Aside, who was seriously wounded and in critical condition, and the bodies of the other victims. Aside, who had a bullet in his right thigh, pointed out that he was the sole survivor of the massacre, the victims of which had already been partially devoured by vultures. Aside’s wound was infested with maggots and his right shoulder blade bore an X-shaped cut. The group returned to Paramaribo with the information. After 24 hours of negotiations with the authorities, the representative of the International Red Cross obtained permission to evacuate Mr. Aside. He was admitted to the Academic Hospital of Paramaribo on January 6, 1988, but died despite the care provided. The Military Police prevented his relatives from visiting him in the hospital. It was not until January 6, that the next of kin of the other victims were granted permission to bury them.

* But scarcely the only atrocity among Maroons during those years.

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1942: Three Bialystok Jews

1 comment December 31st, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1942, three anonymous Jewish residents of the Bialystok Ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland were hung in the public square across the street from the Judenrat (Jewish Council) building. The three worked at the ghetto’s oil factory, and had been caught smuggling sunflower seeds.

The residents of the ghetto paid little attention to the execution, accepting it with resignation. It was hardly remarked on.

But this event was yet another small indication of dire events looming in the near future. Compared to those in other Nazi ghettos, such as those at Warsaw and Lodz, the Bialystok Jews had it pretty good. The ghetto, noted Sara Bender in her 2008 book The Jews of Bialystok During World War II and the Holocaust, was “organized, industrious, and even prosperous. Unlike other ghettos, it never experienced starvation or abject poverty.”

And it was seen as relatively safe. This day’s sort of vicious, arbitrary executions for minor rule infractions, which were so common elsewhere, were not at all frequent in Bialystok. Neither were the mass deportations that had by late 1942 decimated almost all the other ghettos.

Well, Bialystok’s turn was coming.

Unbeknownst to the Bialystokers, just as the sunflower seed smugglers were meeting their end, the powers that be in Berlin were debating the future of the ghetto. The Nazis in immediate charge of the ghetto wanted to keep it, and had logical reasons for doing so: namely, that it was a center of great industry, producing all kinds of goods for the German Army at almost no cost.

Killing off tens of thousands of hardworking slaves during wartime makes about as much sense as hanging three people over sunflower seeds, but this is what Berlin decided to do.

In early- to mid-February 1943, there was a surprise Aktion in the ghetto: 2,000 were killed and a further 10,000 deported to the Treblinka Extermination Camp. About 30,000 remained.

Once it was over, most of the surviving Bialystokers breathed a sigh of relief and hoped against hope that the worst was over — while a small underground group quietly organized an uprising for when the time came.

The rebellion, however, never really had time to get off the ground. When the final deportation occurred in August 1943, almost everyone went quietly in shock to their deaths. A cell of less than 100 fighters put up a few days’ struggle, enough to earn a footnote in history, before the last of the ghetto blew away with the ashes.

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1905: Rebellious workers of the Red Presnia district

5 comments December 31st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1905,* the last bastion of the abortive 1905 Russian Revolution was smashed with mass executions of the radical Russian proletariat who constituted Moscow’s Presnia district.

The long, uphill struggle of tsarist Russia to adapt its economy and political institutions to modernity was nearing its final failure.

A shadow play of that approaching cataclysm would unfold in 1905, when popular dissatisfaction won a short-lived period of constitutional government.

Radicals disdained these half-measures, however, and shook the realm with a general strike in December 1905 — a small quake only, since Russia’s proletariat was still too small to constitute a real threat to the state.

And the capital of insurrectionary labor was Muscovite factory district of Presnia or Presnya. There, a botched attempt to suppress strikers resulted in an armed standoff; “Red Presnia” (Krasnaia or Krasnaya Presnia) ended in carnage when the overmatched workers were besieged by the Semyonovsky Guard.




A political cartoon trilogy on the annihilation of Red Presnia: from the top, The Entrance, The Battle, and The Pacification (picturing the Kremlin sinking in blood). They’re from this public domain Google book; scroll up from the link to pp. 35-38 for more unflattering drawings of the tsar as a tinhorn murderer.

Trotsky recounted the last days of Red Presnia.

On the night of the sixteenth Presnya was encircled in an iron ring of government troops. Soon after 6:00 a.m. on the seventeenth these troops opened a remorseless cannonade. Guns were fired as much as seven times a minute. This continued, with an hour’s respite, until 4:00 p.m. Many factories and houses were destroyed and set on fire. The barrage was conducted from two sides. Houses and barricades were in flames, women and children darted about the streets in clouds of black smoke, the air was filled with the roar and clatter of firing.


Detail view (click for the full image) of an illustration of a Red Presnia barricade under fire from the Semenovsky Guard. (Source)

The glow was such that miles away it was possible to read in the streets late at night, as though it were day. Until noon the druzhiny [the workers' militia] conducted successful operations against the troops, but continuous enemy fire forced them to stop. Only a small group of druzhinniki remained under arms on their own initiative and at their own risk.

By the morning of the eighteenth Presnya had been cleared of barricades. The “peaceful” population were allowed to leave Presnya; the troops were careless enough to allow people to leave without searching them. The druzhinniki were the first to leave, some of them still with arms. Later, there were shootings and other violence by the soldiers, but by then not a single druzhinnik remained in the area.

The “pacification troops” of the Semyonovsky regiment, who were sent to “pacify” the railway, were ordered not to make arrests and to proceed with out mercy.** They met with no resistance anywhere. Not a single shot was fired against them, yet they killed approximately 150 persons on the railway line. The shootings were carried out without investigation or trial. Wounded men were taken from ambulance wagons and finished off. Corpses lay around without anyone daring to carry them away. One of those shot by the Petersburg guards was the engine-driver Ukhtomsky, who saved the lives of a group of druzhinniki by driving them away on his engine at colossal speed under machine-gun fire. Before they shot him, he told his executioners what he had done: “All are safe,” he concluded with calm pride, “you’ll never get them now.”

“No single act during this period of governmental vengeance,” one chronicle remarked, “stands out more senseless than the punitive expeditions of the Semyonovsky Regiment on the Moscow-Kazan railroad.”

And no single victim exemplified the butchery like the legendary Engineer Ukhtomsky. A journalist relates the story:

In the course of my inquiries about the activities of the Semyonovski regiment along the Moscow-Kazan line, I heard many stories about Engineer Ukhtomski, who showed heroic firmness in the last moments of his life. Part of this information was given by the captain of the Semyonovski regiment which executed him in Lubertzy,† together with three other workingmen. The captain, who observed him in his last moments, was charmed by his personality; the soldiers felt a deep reverence for him, their esteem being expressed in the fact that after the first volley he remained untouched. Not one bullet had grazed him.

His appearance was in no way striking. Of medium height, with vivid, clever eyes, he gave the impression of a very modest, almost bashful, man.

It was a mere accident that he fell into the hands of the punitive expedition. He was traveling in a carriage, when he stopped in the Lubertzy inn, ignorant of the presence of soldiers at the station. He was searched and a revolver was found in his pocket, which caused his arrest. He was brought before the officer in charge.

Questioned as to his name, he refused to reveal it. The officer went over the lists and the photographs of the revolutionists, comparing them with the live original before him. then he exclaimed:

‘You are Engineer Ukhtomski; you will be shot!’

‘I thought so,’ Ukhtomski answered coolly.

This happened in the afternoon, about three o’clock. He was asked whether he did not want to take the communion, and expressed his desire to do so.

After the communion he was taken, together with three workingmen of the Lubertzy brake-factory, to the place of execution. He made the following statement, addressing the officer:

‘I knew that, once in your hands, I should be shot; I was prepared for death, and that is why I am so calm. … ‘

At the place of execution they wanted to blindfold Ukhtomski. He asked the favor of meeting death squarely, face to face. He also refused to turn his back to the soldiers.

The soldiers fired. The workingmen dropped. Ukhtomski was not hurt. He stood erect, arms folded on his breast.

The soldiers fired again. He fell on the snow, but he was still alive and fully conscious. He looked around, with eyes full of anguish.

The captain gave him the coup de grace.

Months later, another Russian revolutionary avenged the Presnia charnel house by assassinating the general who orchestrated it. The tsar reaped a still more fearful whirlwind.


Mother, a 1926 silent film by Vsevolod Pudovkin valorizing the 1905 revolution.

Standing just thirteen years later over the remains of that vanquished tsarism, V.I. Lenin paid the martyrs of Presnia tribute for sacrifices “not in vain”:

Before the armed insurrection of December 1905, the people of Russia were incapable of waging a mass armed struggle against their exploiters. After December they were no longer the same people. They had been reborn. They had received their baptism of fire. They had been steeled in revolt. They trained the fighters who were victorious in 1917 and who now, despite the incredible difficulties, and overcoming the torments of hunger arid devastation caused by the imperialist war, are fighting for the world victory of socialism.

Long live the workers of Red Presnya, the vanguard of the world workers’ revolution!


Moscow metro station Krasnopresnenskaya. (cc) image from Pavel Popov.

* New Year’s Eve by the Gregorian calendar; tsarist Russia was still on the archaic, 13-days-slower Julian calendar, so the dates within Russia were (as reflected in the Trotsky passage) Dec. 17 for the storming of Red Presnia, and Dec. 18 for this date’s slaughter.

** “Act without mercy. There will be no arrests.”

† Summary executions continued for some days, but a Jan. 2, 1906 London Times wire dispatch datelined Jan. 1 appears to situate the particular slaughter that would have claimed Ukhtomsky:

The majority of the revolutionaries in the Presnia quarter succeeded in escaping. About 100 surrendered to General Min to save the houses of the poor from destruction. Artillery and troops are clearing the Kazan railway and are capturing station after station. Three hundred railwaymen have been killed and yesterday 70 were summarily shot at Lubertsy. Moscow is becoming quiet.

“The river Moskva at the Presnia Verck,” the correspondent observed, “is covered with corpses of revolutionaries scattered over the ice.”

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1960: The assassins of Hazza Majali

1 comment December 31st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1960 — just two days after they had been sentenced — Saleh Safadi, Mohammed Hindawi, Lt. Husham Dabbas, and Karim Shaqra were hanged in Amman’s Hussein Mosque Square for assassinating Jordan’s prime minister earlier that year.

The marquee casualty of Jordan’s standoff against Nasserite Egypt, Hazza Majali might have just been a footnote to the story. According to King Hussein of Jordan: A Political Life,

[i]t may be that the bomb plot which cost Hazza Majali his life was also aimed at the King himself. The first bomb, which killed the prime minister, was followed by a second explosion at the scene less than forty minutes later. Had the King followed through on his initial intention to visit the bomb site, he might well have been caught in the second blast.

Though the bombings didn’t get King Hussein, they claimed 11 other lives besides Majali’s.

The assassins’ conspiracy traced back to neighboring Syria, which at that time was (briefly) unified with Egypt as the United Arab Republic. Syria and Jordan have found plenty of reasons to bicker over the years, and the former’s alliance here with Nasser‘s pan-Arabism added a pointed ideological critique of Jordan’s throwback Hashemite dynasty.*

Syria and the UAR were busily subverting U.S.-backed Jordan, and in this venture they enjoyed dangerously considerable popular support within Jordan; Majali in particular was “regarded by some Jordanians — and particularly Palestine refugees — as a virtual tool of the Western powers.” (New York Times, Aug. 30, 1960)

So it was a dangerous situation, and King Hussein did well to escape those years un-blown-up himself.

Several weeks of brinksmanship followed Majali’s assassination, with Jordanian troops massed on the Syrian border. Matters stopped short of outright war, but Nasser, Syria, and the UAR were all explicitly accused of this operation and others at the resulting trial of the assassins in December: the plot was supposed to have originated in Damascus, been paid for in Damascus, and used bombs shipped from Damascus.

Eleven in all were condemned to death, but seven of those sentences were given in absentia to suspects who had absconded to Nasser’s dominions.

* In response to the Egypt-Syria union, the kindred Hashemite rulers of Jordan and Iraq had formed the Arab Federation of Iraq and Jordan. That arrangement was even shorter-lived than the UAR, because the Iraqi Hashemites were almost immediately overthrown. You can get Jordan’s official take on those perilous years here.

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1900: En Hai, the murderer of von Ketteler

8 comments December 31st, 2008 Headsman

On the last day of the 19th century, a Chinese officer was beheaded on the public street where he had precipitated western* military intervention in the Boxer Rebellion by killing a German diplomat.

Foreign commercial penetration — and domination — was generating domestic turmoil in China. As liberal reforms foundered in the late 1890′s, a more radical anti-foreigner movement blending spiritualism and martial arts launched the Boxer Rebellion (or Yihetuan Qiyi, in the local coinage).

In addition to massacring hated missionaries, the Boxers besieged foreign diplomatic missions in Peking … and veteran German ambassador Klemens von Ketteler was killed in a firefight on a crowded street. (The particular circumstances of the killing seem highly confused, and were immediately colored by the various interested parties’ axe-grinding; it’s sometimes called an “assassination,” but there’s no proof von Ketteler was specifically targeted, and the ambassador himself managed to get a shot off in the fray.)

Given the financial interests at stake, it would be far too much to say that von Ketteler’s death caused the military intervention that ensued, but it certainly catalyzed the conflict. The next day, China’s Dowager Empress declared war against the Eight-Nation Alliance. Within two months, Peking (Beijing) was under foreign occupation.

The man detained as von Ketteler’s murderer — En Hai, or Enhai, or Su-Hai — was proud to claim the act himself, and intimations of the Chinese government’s official blessing for anti-foreigner activities were carefully massaged since the Eight-Nation powers would have need of the Qing dynasty to keep order locally.


On the afternoon of this day in 1900, En Hai was brought out from German custody to the street where von Ketteler had met his end and handed over to the Chinese for beheading. Notice the substantial foreign attendance in both the photograph and the drawing. A German officer’s diary entry cited in The Origins of the Boxer War: A Multinational Study recounted the scene.

Ketteler’s murderer was executed at last — for months past the unfortunate wretch has been begging for his execution. It took place in one of the busiest thoroughfares but there were only a few curious onlookers. Scarcely fifty yards away the usual business was being quietly transacted in the streets, people who were eating did not suffer themselves to be interrupted, and a teller of fairy-tales who was recounting his absurd stories had interested his numerous audience much more than the execution.

And to see that the lesson would not be lost on future generations of Chinese, the humiliating peace imposed upon China that December (and formally signed the following year) required China to expiate its guilt by

erect[ing] on the spot of the assassination of his Excellency the late Baron von Ketteler, commemorative monument worthy of the rank of the deceased, and bearing an inscription in the Latin, German, and Chinese languages which shall express the regrets of His Majesty the Emperor of China for the murder committed

Having been made an offer it couldn’t refuse, China honored the intersection (German link) where both the victim and his killer had died in their turns with a massive pailou archway, inscribed

This monument has been erected by order of His Majesty the Emperor of China for the Imperial German Minister Baron von Ketteler, who fell on this spot by heinous murder on the 20th of June, 1900, in everlasting commemoration of his name, as an eternal token of the Emperor’s wrath about this crime, as a warning to all.


A historical postcard of Ketteler monument.

“Everlasting commemoration,” in this case, lasted 15 years.

The national aspirations that had fired the Boxers reared up again in 1911-12 to topple the Qing. Days after Germany’s surrender in World War I, the Chinese Republic began removing the von Ketteler monument.

Visitors will need to look sharp to catch it now, in Zhongshan Park (aka Sun Yat-Sen Park or Central Park), where it has been rededicated to abstractions that age a little better than our German civil servant.

But this was still not quite the last the name von Ketteler was heard in the consular world. A relative (German link) of the man slain in Peking was a conservative diplomat of the Weimar and early Nazi period who opposed the national socialist government. Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler was abducted by the Gestapo in 1938 and murdered thereafter in unclear circumstances, possibly for involvement in a very early plot to kill Hitler.

* “Western” in this case includes Japan, the regional industrial power that also flanked the Russian Empire to the east — very much a player on the European balance-of-power chessboard. Germany (obviously), France, Italy, Russia, the U.K., and the U.S.A. were the other nations involved in the intervention, along with the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whose naval deployment to China included future Sound of Music character Georg Ritter von Trapp.

A fair amount of detail on China’s foreign relations during this period is available free in the (dry, and sometimes dated) public-domain 1918 work The International Relations of the Chinese Empire.

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1898: Joseph Vacher

2 comments December 31st, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1898, “the French Ripper” Joseph Vacher was guillotined for a three-year homicidal spree through the French countryside.

Less renowned to posterity than the unidentified British contemporary to whom his nickname alluded, Vacher was thoroughly infamous in his day. The New York Timesreport of his beheading noted that “[t]he crimes of Joseph Vacher have surpassed in number and atrocity those of the Whitechapel murderer.”

After release as “completely cured” from a mental hospital to whose hapless mercies a failed murder-suicide — both murder and suicide failed — involving his unrequited love had left him, Vacher drifted through rural France from 1894 until his arrest in 1897 killing randomly, frequently, and savagely.

He left at least 11 victims, and possibly several dozen, often atrociously mutilating the bodies. The seeming sang-froid of his murders — one story has him coolly misdirecting a police officer in a frantic chase for the killer of a body he has left behind minutes before — and their horrific nature and extent threw his case into the eye of a public already fearful of “drifters”.

If it is likely that the murders themselves demanded their author’s execution regardless, Vacher’s claim that madness — “simulated insanity”, the Times called it — drove the killings and negated his culpability remained a challenging medical and judicial issue. As Susan A. Ashley writes in The Human Tradition in Modern France:

The … judicial proceedings centered on his mental competence. Could he be held responsible for his actions? He claimed that he acted on impulse, that he was driven to kill and maim by fits of uncontrollable rage. The court-appointed experts, however, concluded that he had carefully planned and carried out the killings, and the jury agreed.

Medical experts and legal authorities seriously disagreed over Vacher’s mental state and over the limits of his legal responsibility. They examined his past and his behavior after his arrest and drew very different conclusions about his sanity.

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