1975: Isobel Lobato, wife of East Timor’s Prime Minister

2 comments December 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1975, the wife of East Timor’s Prime Minister was publicly executed on the docks of her conquered country’s capital.

By the happenstances of colonial expansion, East Timor, a 15,000-square kilometer half-island in the Lesser Sundas, chanced to have the Portuguese flag planted on its soil instead of (as characterized the rest of its surrounding Indonesian archipelago) the Dutch.

Because of this, Timor-Leste did not walk the same path trod by Indonesia: it did not share in Indonesia’s 1945 revolution breaking away from the Netherlands, nor in the 1965 coup d’etat that put the Suharto military dictatorship in charge of that country.

While these years of living dangerously played out throughout the vast island chains, and even in West Timor, little East Timor remained Portuguese property into the 1970s.

But by that time, colonialism was wearing out its welcome in that onetime maritime empire. A long-running, and ever more unpopular, war against independence fighters in Portugal’s African colonies finally helped to trigger the mother country’s 1974-75 Carnation Revolution and a new regime interested in immediate decolonization.

Abruptly — arguably, too abruptly — Portugal began divesting herself of her onetime empire’s onetime jewels, including not only East Timor but Goa on the coast of India (oops), and the African states of Guinea, Mozambique, and Angola. These would immediately become contested violently by proxies backed by the United States and the Soviet Union.

Though easily the least lucrative and strategically essential of these forsaken colonies, Timor too felt the the Cold War’s hand.

Western-allied Suharto eyed warily the Timorese left-wing insurgent movement turned political party that went so far as to declared Timorese independence in November of 1975. In response, Indonesia gathered the main opposition parties under its own umbrella and had them produce a declaration calling for — wouldn’t you know it? — unification with Indonesia.

By that time, the fall of 1975, it was becoming apparent that such a unification would soon be a fait accompli. Indonesian commandos were penetrating East Timor, even making bold enough to murder western journalists. On December 7, 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor with the blessing of Washington, D.C.*

The ensuing 24-year occupation was a notorious bloodbath, and Indonesian troops set the standard right from day one … or, in this case, day two.

On December 8, in the now-occupied capital city of Dili, dozens of Timorese elites were marched to the quay under the frightened gaze of their countrymen and -women, and there publicly shot into the harbor. Notable among them was Isobel Lobato, the wife of Nicolau Lobato, who had been the prime minister of Timor’s brief moment of independence in 1975.

Nicolau Lobato himself did not hare his wife’s fate, however. He escaped into the bush where he helped lead a remarkably persistent anti-occupation guerrilla movement until he was finally killed in a firefight in 1978. Post-independence, Dili’s Presidente Nicolau Lobato International Airport was re-named in his honor.

* President Gerald Ford and his fell henchman Henry Kissinger flew out of Jakarta hours before the invasion, arriving in Hawaii where they would demur on reporters’ inquiries as to whether they had green-lighted the unfolding incursion. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who was at that time America’s U.N. envoy, boasted in his memoirs that “The United States wished things to turn out as they did, and worked to bring this about. The Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. This task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

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1934: John and Betty Stam, China missionaries

Add comment December 8th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Chinese Communists beheaded John and Betty Stam in the Anhui province town of Miaoshu.

The Stams had settled as China Inland Mission proselytizers in the town of Jingde (at their time generally rendered as “Tsingteh”). Betty Stam (nee Scott) had grown up in China, the daughter of a Presbyterian missionary. John was a New Jersey native who had graduated Moody Bible Institute in 1932. They had a three-month-old daughter named Helen Priscilla.

On December 6, 1934, Communist rebels in China’s long-running civil war entered Jingde and seized the foreign family. According to a tribute page kept by a great-nephew of the, John wrote a short note that evening.

Tsingteh, An.
Dec. 6, 1934

China Inland Mission, Shanghai

Dear Brethren,

My wife, baby and myself are today in the hands of the Communists in the city of Tsingteh. Their demand is twenty thousand dollars for our release.

All our possessions and stores are in their hands, but we praise God for peace in our hearts and a meal tonight. God grant you wisdom in what you do, and us fortitude, courage and peace of heart. He is able-and a wonderful Friend in such a time.

Things happened so quickly this a.m. They were in the city just a few hours after the ever-persistent rumors really became alarming, so that we could not prepare to leave in time. We were just too late.

The Lord bless and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.

In Him,
John C. Stam

The author of John and Betty Stam: Missonary Martyr summarizes his subjects’ “inspiring and instructive story” in a blog post here.

A foreboding message, but Christian evangelizing in China had often proved dangerous to its practitioners.

The next day they were marched 12 miles to Miaoshu where they stopped for the night. Facing martyrdom, the couple stowed their daughter away like Moses, hidden in a sleeping bag with John’s last missive and ten dollars that might serve to care for her.

Miraculously, Helen Priscilla would be overlooked when the Stams’ captors came for them on December 8 and marched them through Miaoshu. It’s said that one Chinese vendor made bold to object, and was added to the doomed party for his trouble. At the end of the march, John was forced to his knees and beheaded before his companions’ eyes; Betty and the shopkeep followed him.

Little Helen survived her parents’ ordeal. A Chinese evangelist named Lo found the girl and carried her 100 miles to a mission hospital. She was taken in from there by Betty’s parents and eventually adopted by Betty’s sister and raised in the Philippines before returning to the United States.

Back in China, another missionary, Frank Houghton, was moved by the sacrifice of the Stams to compose a hymn, “Thou Who Wast Rich Beyond All Splendour” (set to an old French canticle, Quelle est cette odeur agréable?).

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1922: Four anti-Treaty Irish Republicans

Add comment December 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1922, Irish Republicans Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Richard Barrett and Joe McKelvey were shot.


Stagey-looking fake propaganda photo of Rory O’Connor’s (very real) Dec. 8, 1922 execution.

These four were militant foes of the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, which was to the Troubles as the Apple of Discord was to the Trojan War.

Furious at the betrayed dream (and, briefly, reality) of a united Irish republic, they were among those who occupied central Dublin’s Four Courts in April 1922, hoping to draw Britain into a counterproductive intervention.

It was a move straight from the playbook of tragic guerrilla-cum-statesman Michael Collins … except that Collins was on the other side in 1922. Collins, then Chairman of the Provisional Government for the new Irish state (and negotiator of the hated treaty) spent that spring trying to convince the Four Corners occupiers to back off, but also not intervening to force their garrison out.

Noninterference came to an end after some other Irish militants assassinated British Field-Marshal Sir Henry Wilson in June 1922. London put the political screws to Michael Collins, leading to the anomalous sight of the onetime anti-British revolutionary turning British-lent artillery against Dublin republicans.


Times change.

The Four Courts guys, imprisoned from July, would provide an even more poignant illustration of Ireland’s heartbreaking house-divided history.

For it was the Provisional Government’s Minister of Justice Kevin O’Higgins who ordered the executions — a man who had once been so tight with the executed Rory O’Connor that O’Connor was in his wedding party. (Where they toasted the Easter Rising martyrs.)

What could turn men so tight against one another? On December 7, anti-Treaty gunmen killed Sean Hales, an IRA man whom Collins had brought over to the pro-Treaty side. In a ruthless reprisal, Higgins approved the summary execution of his former comrades.

According to the official announcement* — which was bitterly denounced as lawless by the Free State’s Labour parliamentarians —

The execution took place this morning at Mountjoy Gaol of the following persons taken in arms against the Irish Government: — Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellowes, Joseph McKelvey, and Richard Barrett, as a reprisal for the assassination on his way to Dail Eireann on December 7 of Brigadier Sean Hales, T.D., and as a solemn warning to those associated with them who are engaged in a conspiracy of assassination against the representatives of the Irish people.

Bloody ironies would stack one upon the other. The rest of Sean Hales’s family had remained staunchly anti-Treaty, and publicly denounced the executions.

Sean’s own brother Tom Hales had famously withstood British torture in 1921. But Tom is even more famous for a different deed: in August 1922, Tom Hales led the republican column that ambushed and killed Michael Collins.

Many more bodies lay ahead.

* Quoted in the December 9,1922 London Times, along with some of the opposition firestorm that ensued in the Dail. “Mr. Cathal O’Shannon, shouting indignantly at the Government, said they were not fit to govern, and described the executions as the greatest crime, without exception, committed in Ireland in the last ten years. ‘You have no authority,’ he said, ‘to execute these men. You murdered them.'”

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2009: Yang Yanming, hedge fund manager

1 comment December 8th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 2009, China executed a rogue securities trader for disappearing around $10 million.

The first person executed for securities corruption in China, Yang used his position as a trader for Galaxy Securities to embezzle some 65 million yuan for personal gain.

He never disclosed the money’s whereabouts, presumably taking the secret with him to the grave. (Or to the organ donor market.)

As gangster capitalists go, Yang could hardly be considered exemplary either by scale or by ruthlessness. His peculation undoubtedly harmed many people, but there’s no known whiff of violence about him; he was caught after attempting suicide.

But by the same token, the occasional sacrifice of such middling malefactors potentially helps discharge some of the tension generated by the structural inequality accompanying China’s new oligarchy. What to do in such a world?

“Preserve your moral integrity and don’t set too much store by business results,” Yang told a newspaper prior to his execution. You said it, brother.

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1828: Joseph Hunton, forger

Add comment December 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1828, Quaker forger Joseph Hunton was hanged at Newgate Prison.

The very model of petit bourgeois hustle, Hunton was a versatile businessman who variously engaged in slop-selling, linen-draping, sugar-baking, and warehousing, before turning his craft to that most lucrative of all trades, money-minting.

Hunton circulated bills of exchange fraudulently drawn on dead people, and easily traced back to his hand. Ever the assiduous merchant, Hunton was arrested trying to flee England — with a letter in his pocket to post for the Times correcting that paper’s inflated account of his graft to a more modest figure.

Since the reputation that preceded him was otherwise a good one, and since executions for white-collar crime suffered declining popularity, Hunton had “every reason to expect that the mercy of the Crown will be extended to the unhappy object of public commiseration.” (The London Times, Nov. 21, 1828, evidently an error-prone source on the subject of J. Hunton.) Even Nathan Mayer Rothschild, one of the founders of that family’s banking empire, signed a petition for Hunton along with other eminences of the London financial district. This sentiment, the Times observed (Dec. 6, 1828)

proves sufficiently that in the opinion of the commercial public, fraud is not an appropriate subject for capital punishment … The human heart, we say, in the 19th century, revolts at such a retribution for such a transgression … [which] flies in the face of those feelings which attest, because they go far to constitute, the advancement of mankind in civilization and humanity. The penalty of death was enacted for the sake of the monied interest,–the monied interest, by this petition, loudly proclaim that they deem the penalty unnecessary!

Little wonder the Newgate Calendar noticed “a very general belief … that a respite would most certainly arrive for him even so late as on the morning fixed for his death. His safety was considered almost certain, and many were scarcely persuaded that he would really suffer even at the moment when the fatal cord encompassed his neck.”

But it was not so.


Some things never change.

Though 1828 is many decades before England developed its exacting “drop tables” calculating the precise length of rope meant to hang a fellow of a given stature, the accounts of Hunton’s hanging are at pains to note that, because Hunton himself was so short, his rope was made longer than that of the three unconnected fellow-convicts who hanged with him. Table or no, the executioner knew his craft: Hunton died instantly, or appeared to.

(Another Quaker once an intimate of Hunton later became notable gallows fodder himself, John Tawell. Tawell was the first criminal captured with use of the telegraph.)

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1982: Suriname’s “December murders”

7 comments December 8th, 2009 Headsman

This was the date in 1982 of the “December murders” (“Decembermoorden”), when 15 opponents of Suriname’s military dictatorship were shot at Fort Zeelandia.

(The 15 people shot each have an entry on the Dutch Wikipedia, accessible through its Decembermoorden entry.)

Though the killings weren’t secret at the time, their circumstances have always been murky, beyond the plain fact of being murders of political dissidents — “counterrevolutionaries,” in the parlance of the “Socialist Republic”.

President Desi Bouterse had seized power in a coup in early 1980, and some of the casualties this day might have been suspected of plotting to pull the same trick on him: at least, several were made to read statements to that effect. Others were regime opponents of a less existential menace: dissident university professors; critical journalists; a prominent former footballer. (When in Paramaribo, take in a match at Andre Kamperveen Stadion, which is named for him.)


Andre Kamperveen.

Bouterse took political responsibility for the slaughter while claiming not to have ordered it. But it’s long been said that Bouterse was actually present for the shootings, personally interviewing/interrogating/”judging” the prisoners. (That’s what the massacre’s lone survivor, the since-deceased Fred Derby, said. (Dutch link))

Decades later, Bouterse — now an ex-dictator — is finally facing trial for the December murders, including fresh evidence of his involvement in the day’s notorious affair.

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1793: Madame du Barry, who hated to go

4 comments December 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1793, Madame du Barry — shrieking pitiably in terror — was guillotined in Paris.

Versaille costume dramas have made great hay with the courtesan who became the mistress of Louis XV, and her catty court rivalry with Marie Antoinette. (Madame Tussaud’s still-on-display Sleeping Beauty figure was also created way back in 1763 in her likeness.)

More portraits of Madame du Barry here.

The sovereign’s bed implied a station of wealth and extravagance, but the low birth that caused Marie to turn up her nose didn’t much help this day’s victim standing with the Jacobins.

Poor Madame du Barry, at 50 years of age, had not lost an ounce of her considerable zest for life … and her apparently ingenuous joie de vivre while the Revolution raged looks somewhere between innocent and daft.

While nobles were scrambling to get out of France, the Comtesse born Jeanne Bécu shuttled back and forth over the English Channel in 1792 to settle her jewelry accounts … and decided to stay in France, returning after the September Massacres no less. Later, she would detail to her gaolers where she had stashed her baubles around her estate, in the delusion that they could buy her life — or at least, “did not each word give her a second of time?”*

She’s remembered for the uncommon scene she made being hauled to the guillotine this date — in a time when the scaffold’s pageantry demanded a stoic public dignity from the guillotine’s victims, the Comtesse came apart, and begged the crowd for her life so frantically and heart-wrenchingly that the executioners felt hurried to dispatch her lest the scene turn against them.

Even to the last, hopeless second she implored Sanson,

Encore un moment, monsieur le bourreau, un petit moment.**

One could make the case that if more clients of the national razor had displayed such naked humanity to onlookers, the guillotine‘s technical and social capacity for mass butchery might have been lessened.

Whether true or not, she gives us a glimpse, oddly unusual in these pages, of unadulterated fright — of that visceral instinct to cling to life, even under the blade, even for one little moment more.

Dostoyevsky, who knew whereof he spoke would write in The Idiot,

After all this honour and glory, after having been almost a Queen, she was guillotined by that butcher, Samson. She was quite innocent, but it had to be done, for the satisfaction of the fishwives of Paris. She was so terrified, that she did not understand what was happening. But when Samson seized her head, and pushed her under the knife with his foot, she cried out: ‘Wait a moment! wait a moment, monsieur!’ Well, because of that moment of bitter suffering, perhaps the Saviour will pardon her other faults, for one cannot imagine a greater agony.

Spare a thought for that moment of bitter suffering, next time you … uh, dine on cauliflower?

* This line, obviously in the vein of her famous last request to the headsman, is from Memoirs of the Comtesse Du Barry, actually a 19th century work of historical fiction by Baron Etienne Leon Lamothe-Langon.

** “One moment more, executioner, one little moment!”

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1596: Francisca Nunez de Carvajal, her children, and four other crypto-Jews of her family

3 comments December 8th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1596, the Inquisition sent nine Jewish converts to Christianity to the stake in Mexico City for Judaizing — a cruel fate offering a window into a secret history of New World settlement.

When Spain expelled its Jews (and subsequently its Muslims), those who did not flee had to convert. Conversions at swordpoint being of suspect sincerity, the Inquisition spent much of the following centuries hunting Conversos — so-called “New Christians” — who secretly preserved their outlawed faiths.

For some crypto-Jews, the New World held an appeal akin to that which would draw later generations of northern Europe’s religious minorities.

Latin America in particular attracted considerable numbers of New Christians. The advantage of these territories was that they offered the New Christians a familiar culture and the possiblity of direct — even if infrequent — contact with the mother countries … These factors also helped permit [crypto-Jews] to practice Judaism.

The Carvajals (or Carabajals) were just such a family, settling in Monterrey under the aegis of their kinsman, Spanish governor Luis de Carvajal y Cueva.

But in 1590, the governor’s sister Francisa was tortured by the Inquisition into implicating her entire family in Judaism.

They got off with a humiliating public recantation, but evidence of a relapse a few years later resulted in Francisca being burned at the stake at an auto de fe — along with her children Isabel, Catalina, Leonor and Luis, and four of their in-laws. The 30-year-old Luis left a testimonial to his faith and his tortures.

A headstone in New Mexico, USA, suggests crypto-Jewish descent. Image used with permission.

Despite the grisly doings of this day, however, the Inquisition never could extirpate Jews from its American territory.

These hidden communities filtered into Mexico and north to the present-day United States, keeping adapted versions of Jewish traditions secretly alive.

Still, crypto-Jews produced scant potentially self-incriminating documentary evidence. Although DNA testing has latterly entered the scene, the true extent and nature of these populations has been the subject of lively scholarly controversy.

But the Carvajals and others like them, seemingly lost to the Inquisition’s depredations, are coming alive again. This day’s executions are the subject of a modern opera and a spring 2008 Texas A&M symposium.

And the wider community of crypto-Jews have their own umbrella organization and a burgeoning body of historical literature.

Books about crypto-Jews

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