1869: An Dehai, beloved eunuch

1 comment September 12th, 2018 Headsman

The imperial eunuch An Dehai was beheaded in Jinan on this date in 1869.

He was so much the favorite that it’s been clained that the redoubtable Empress Dowager Cixi had outright fallen in love with the courtier.

This was a circumstance destined to sharpen both An’s confidence in his position, and the blades of the inevitable enemies within the Forbidden City who were keen to be rid of him.

In 1869, the eunuch was dispatched to Nanjing as Cixi’s envoy to arrange the wedding gowns for the marriage of her son, the titular boy-emperor in whose name Cixi wielded power. On this trip, Cixi openly flaunted the protocol requiring eunuchs keep themselves inconspicuous, and also allegedly used the occasion to feather his bed with a bit of opportunistic extortion.

This, at any rate, was the report that an imperial governor relayed back to Prince Gong, who had once helped Cixi seize power in the state but had now become her rival. Gong got a quorum of the Grand Council to sign off on An’s execution while Cixi was off at the opera. She was so bereaved to discover his fate that she had his belongings lovingly gathered up for permanent safekeeping.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Politicians,Power

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1616: “A gentellwoeman” by exposure, for a eunuch liaison

Add comment July 13th, 2014 Headsman

The English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, envoy to the Mughal Empire from 1615 to 1619 during the reign of Jahangir, recorded in his journal* the unfortunate fate this date of a nameless woman for being caught rendezvousing with a palace eunuch.

This day a gentellwoeman of Normalls was taken in the kings house in some action with an Eunuch. Another Capon that loved her kylld him. The Poore Woeman was sett up to the Arme pitts in the Earth hard ramed, her feete tyde to a stake, to abyde 3 dayes and 2 nights without any sustenance, her head and armes bare, exposed to the sunns violence: if shee died not in that tyme she should bee pardoned. The Eunuch was Condemned to the Eliphantes. This damsell yeelded in Pearle, Jewelles, and ready mony 160,000 rupias.

That this bit character who does not even merit a name here left such a fortune surely testifies to the Mughal Empire’s famously astounding trade wealth.

Roe does not disclose how long the condemned woman managed to survive, but the separate memoir of Roe’s chaplain Edward Terry confirms that she succumbed to exposure well before the elapse of the pardonable three days. (The two seem to have received differing intelligence on the execution method of the eunuch, despite Terry’s indication that it transpired practically in the English mission’s backyard.)

Now for the disposition of that King, it ever seemed unto me to be composed of extremes; for sometimes he was barbarously cruel, and at other times he would seem to be exceedingly fair and gentle.

For his cruelties, he put one of his women to a miserable death; one of his women he had formerly touched and kept company with, but now she was superannuated; for neither himself nor nobles (as they say) come near their wives or women, after they exceed the age of thirty years. The fault of that woman was this; the Mogul upon a time found her and one of his eunuchs kissing one another; and for this very thing, the King presently gave command that a round hole should be made in the earth, and that her body should be put into that hole, where she should stnad with her head only above ground, and the earth to be put in again unto her close round about her, that so she might stand in the parching sun ’till the extreme hot beams thereof did kill her; in which torment she lived one whole day, and the night following, and almost ’till the next noon, crying out most lamentably, while she was able to speak, in her language, as the Shumanite’s child did in his, 2 King. 4. “Ah my head, my head!” which horrid execution, or rather murder, was acted near our house; where the eunuch, by the command of the said King, was brought very near the place where this poor creature was thus buried alive, and there in her sight cut all into pieces.

* Published as The embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, as narrated in his journal and correspondence. This vignette is from volume 1; there is also a volume 2

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,By Animals,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,India,Known But To God,Mughal Empire,Public Executions,Scandal,Sex,Women

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1656: The Chief Black and White Eunuchs of Topkapi Palace

Add comment March 4th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1656, an Istanbul mutiny against debasing coinage resulted in thirty-odd high officials hanged at the gates of the Blue Mosque.

In Ottoman periodization, 1656 is the end point of the Sultanate of Women — a century-plus span stretching all the way back to Roxelana when powerful harem women consistently defined Topkapi Palace intrigue, often alongside shaky male executives.

Many of the sultans in that span were minors, as was the the putative head of state for our scene, 14-year-old Mehmed IV. Their succession was invariably achieved by the skillful maneuvering of their mothers, who then figured to graduate to Valide Sultan, “Mother Sultan” and wield considerable power in their own right. In Mehmed’s case, Mother Sultan was a Ukrainian former slave named Turhan Hatice … but you can just call her the power behind the throne.

(Actually, Turhan was initially aced out of the powerful Valide Sultan gig by Mehmed’s paternal grandmother when Mehmed inherited the throne at the age of six; Turhan herself was only about 20 years old at that time. Turhan had that woman assassinated in 1651 to swipe the position.)

Come the 1650s, the Ottomans were mired in a long war with Venice over control of Crete — ultimately a Pyrrhic victory for the Ottomans in view of the enormous cost.

One of the ongoing costs of that conflict was currency depreciation; silver coins were so hard to come by that European traders made tidy money hauling debased silver-coated copper coins to sell in Istanbul — and had no shortage of buyers who knew exactly what they were getting and were happy to have it. According to Caroline Finkel, “1000 aspers of [official coinage] was valued at less than one hundred aspers in the market-place.”

Janissaries* aggrieved at being paid in rubbish “marched to the Hippodrome, vociferously demanding that those who had deceived Sultan Mehmed by implementing the debasement be killed.”

That’s an experience to drop your gonads when you’re 14 years old. The Janissaries, the capital’s elite warrior clique, had the sultanate by the short and curlies and were known to enforce their whims to the detriment of the empire’s interests. They had, indeed, revolted over currency depreciation in the 1580s; they also deposed Mehmed’s uncle, 17-year-old Sultan Osman II, when that young man tried to curb Janissaries’ dangerous power.

Undoubtedly these mutinous Janissaries would have enforced their demands with similar desperation. Jenkins says that the execution of the Mother Sultan was one of those demands, but at least the teen sultan was able to cross her name off the hit list. The various attendants, aghas, and eunuchs who irritated the Janissaries were not so fortunate.

Ah, the eunuchs.

We’ve titled our post with the most titillating of this date’s targets of Janissary wrath. Ottoman Eunuchs** came in the “Black” and “White” varieties, as in black and white races; because Islam prohibited castration, they were obtained by slavers in Africa or in the Balkans, where Christians and Jews did the dirty work.

European “White Eunuchs” from the Balkans had their testicles removed; these were sought by the hundreds as palace bureaucrats in Istanbul. African “Black Eunuchs” from Egypt or Ethiopia typically had their entire genitalia cut off, and had the more powerful position of serving the royal persons. (They had usurped that role in the late 16th century from the formerly preeminent white eunuchs.)

Each racial set had its own hierarchy and its own chief. The Chief Black Eunuch was the master of the harem and a powerful, trusted emissary of the Valide Sultan: it was her black eunuch that Turhan Hatice had sent to murder Mehmed’s original Valide Sultan.


A black eunuch — I think? — looms over a new concubine in Alexander Russov’s 1891 Bought for the Harem. Lest one think this sort of lascivious Orientalism is solely the relic of a bygone age, check out the Harlequin bodice-ripper of the same title.

These chief eunuchs, and especially the chief black eunuchs, were among the sacrificial executions the Janissaries required for their obedience. Mehmed did not attempt to protect them; one doubts that he could have done so.

The sultan’s acquiescence in these executions set him up for a 39-year reign, the longest since Suleiman the Magnificent. But it was also under Mehmed that the Sultanate of Women gave way to the civil administration. Later that same year of 1656, continuing crisis forced the appointment of Koprulu Mehmed Pasha as Grand Vizier.

The Albanian Koprulu wielded virtually dictatorial powers and founded a whole dynasty of Ottoman Grand Viziers† that dominated Ottoman politics into the 18th century.

* The Janissaries were infantry; their less-(in)famous cavalry counterpart, the Sipahis, also participated in this 1656 mutiny.

** Eunuchs persisted in the Ottoman sultanate right up until the end of World War I, and ex-eunuchs (well, still eunuchs) of the ex-Sublime Porte were still to be found in Turkey as late as the 1970s. One of them recounted the experience of being kidnapped and castrated in Ethiopia for export to the Ottoman palace.

† Including Kara Mustafa Pasha, the Ottoman commander executed for losing the Battle of Vienna.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Public Executions,Summary Executions,Turkey

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1407: Chen Zuyi, Zheng He’s prisoner

6 comments October 21st, 2008 Headsman

On an uncertain date this month in 1407, a Sumatran pirate was put to death in Nanking (or Nanjing) to the glory of the Yongle Emperor.

The day’s subject is not the corpse, but Zheng He (also known as Cheng Ho or Ma Sanbao), the Muslim Chinese eunuch-mariner whose early 15th century expeditions to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean and beyond* pointed the way to a sea-striding colonial future that his country turned its back upon.

On the first of Zheng’s seven expeditions, his enormous fleet did battle with Chen Zuyi, whose own substantial armada based in Palembang controlled the strategic Strait of Malacca.

Five thousand pirates are said to have gone to Davy Jones’ locker in Zheng’s victory; his captured enemy got a ride back to the Chinese capital to be made an example of.

But Zheng’s heroics in this adventure and others did not long outlive the emperor Zhu Di.

He had rivals at court. Enormous treasure ships don’t come cheap, and though they brought back curiosities like giraffes, they didn’t earn back their investment in new tribute; the state budget had competing priorities, while China’s concern with the sea was so overwhelmingly fear of piracy that it all but shut down maritime activity for a time.

Though the pat story of Chinese isolationism might be a tad overstated, hindsight from New World locales with Spanish or English or French names rather than Chinese ones still can’t help but see the aborted age of discovery as a turning point.

An enormous, wealthy, centralized state on the rim of the Pacific Ocean, with the baddest seafaring flotilla around. If you had to pick the world’s probable leading colonial power of the coming centuries, you’d probably have put your money on China in October 1407.

Chen Zuyi sure would have.

* To America ahead of Christopher Columbus? To Italy to launch the Renaissance? To 1955 to inspire Chuck Berry? Hey, whatever pays the bills.

Point. Counterpoint.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Indonesia,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Pirates,Power

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