1915: Mrs. Chippy, safe return doubtful

3 comments October 29th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1915, polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, his ship fatally trapped in Antarctic pack ice, had the ship’s beloved cat shot.

The 1915 voyage of Shackleton’s aptly named barquentine Endurance* wrote for the expiring “Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration” one of its most stouthearted chapters.

Struggling through a gale towards Vahsel Bay, the Endurance became icebound within sight of her destination to the peril of Shackleton and 27 other intrepid souls.

That is, 27 human souls.

“We are twenty-eight men with forty-nine dogs, including Sue’s and Sallie’s five grown-up pups,” Shackleton recorded in his diary for October 29, 1915. By then, the Endurance had been pinned in the ice for the best part of a year, vainly awaiting a favorable wind that would scatter the floes — an exercise in the monotonous perseverance that polar expeditions demanded. Two days before that entry, however, the situation worsened from dire to catastrophic when the weight of the ice began cracking the captive ship’s hull, pouring the frigid Weddell Sea into her hold.

“The pressure caused by the congestion in this area of the pack is producing a scene of absolute chaos,” Shackleton wrote. “The ice moves majestically, ireesistibly. Human effort is not futile, but man fights against the giant forces of Nature in a spirit of humility. One has a sense of dependence on the higher Power.” With the ship now impaled upon the floes, human effort and higher Power alike would need to bend every sinew toward mere survival.

By the terms of its objective — to cross Antarctica overland to the Ross Sea — Shackleton’s expedition was a failure. As a feat of human spirit, it was his greatest triumph, its fame nowise hindered by expedition photographer Frank Hurley who captured the drama in photographs and film.


When a stretch of open sea came within a few hundred yards of the Endurance, Shackleton had his crew try to carve a channel to it with pickaxes.


Dogs and men under the hulk of the Endurance in the eerie polar night.


Crushed by the ice, the Endurance crumples into the sea.

After drifting some weeks more on the floes, Shackleton kept his desperate party together to reach open seas where they navigated the ship’s launches to Elephant Island, a frostbitten desolation where they wintered in a makeshift shelter and hunted seals and penguins.

Meanwhile, Shackleton took a few crew members in a small boat hundreds of miles onward to inhabited stations South Georgia Island where they were finally able to muster a rescue mission. Twenty-five men of the 28 survived the harrowing two-year expedition.


Map of the Shackleton expedition’s progress. The light blue line represents the party’s intended course across the continent; instead, the sea voyage (in red) became trapped in the ice and drifted (in yellow) across the Weddell Sea before taking to the launches to escape (in green) to Elephant Island. (cc) image by Finetooth, Like tears in rain.

Those who were not men did not fare as well.

In addition to the Endurance‘s many sled dogs, 40-year-old Scots carpenter Harry “Chippy” McNish (variously spelled MacNish or McNeish) had taken on board a charismatic little tabby for the ship’s cat. “Mrs. Chippy” — the name stuck even after the crew realized that “she” was really a male — quickly became beloved of the crew, and especially of Chippy McNish.

But Mrs. Chippy was not an asset for the survival epic that the Endurance crew was destined to author.

Under the duress of the ice floes, Shackleton on October 29, 1915 did what had to be done and ordered the least utile animals put to death to preserve resources for the others.

This afternoon Sallie’s three youngest pups, Sue’s Sirius, and Mrs. Chippy, the carpenter’s cat, have to be shot. We could not undertake the maintenance of weaklings under the new conditions. Macklin, Crean, and the carpenter [McNish] seemed to feel the loss of their friends rather badly.

McNish’s hard feelings against the skipper for the death of his puss speaks better of his heart than his head; the irascible carpenter would later be threatened by Shackleton with wilderness execution himself for a brief ice floe mutiny, from which McNish correctly retreated. Surely posterity can overlook the slip of discipline under this state of incredible privation and fear … but Shackleton didn’t. After the pains of the ice and sea were past and the expedition safe home, the chief withheld from his able but disgruntled carpenter an endorsement for the Polar Medal that decorated most of his mates. (Other crew, united in their regard for Shackleton, felt that McNish’s Polar Medal slight was on the mean side.)

The poor doomed cat that succumbed on this date in 1915 to the might of the Antarctic and the hard pragmatism of Ernest Shackleton has been tugging heartstrings ever since. McNish’s grave in New Zealand was decorated in 2004 with a bronze statue of Mrs. Chippy; the cat has also made appearances on postage stamps, in opera, headlining books, and in art.

A few books about the Shackleton expedition

n.b. the legendary help-wanted ad referenced by the title of this post — “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.” — is most likely an actual legend. Numberless Shackleton enthusiasts have plumbed many a musty archive in pursuit of the original copy, without success.

* The ship was christened after Shackleton’s Game Of Thrones-like house motto, “By Endurance we Conquer.”

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1884: Charles Henry, iced in the Arctic

2 comments June 6th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1884, U.S. Army Private Charles B. Henry of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (LFBE) was summarily executed in the distant northern reaches* of present-day Nunavut.


It’s waaaaaay up there. Click to view larger map, but don’t expect details.

The “Greely expedition” — so called after its commander, Adolphus Greely — was dispatched from Washington in the enthusiasm of the First International Polar Year. This was a multinational collaborative to gather scientific data about the globe’s frigid polar reaches; technically, this first IPY spanned 1882 to 1883, but the ill-starred Greely mission set out in 1881.

The LFBE was headed for a narrow icebound inlet named for a woman who lost her explorer husband on an Arctic voyage. That bay juts like a dead tree limb out of the Robeson Channel into the remote northern wildernesses of Ellesmere Island.

The mission laid down for the 25 men of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition in 1881 was to establish a weather station, and to collect astronomical and geomagnetic data.

But long before the starving remnants of that crew put Private Henry to sudden death, they had supplanted that noble endeavor with the classic objective of polar adventure: mere survival.

Matters started promisingly enough: the ship that ferried these men to their ordeal dropped them without incident at a natural harbor in Lady Franklin Bay, where the intrepid men built Fort Conger — a sturdy frame house 65′ x 21′ x 14′. They would spend the next two years making scientific measurements, exploring, and awaiting planned resupply ships in the summers.

Ice-choked waters, however, do not open reliably to this location. The resupply missions in both 1882 and 1883 failed — and left the mission with a life-or-death choice.

Per prearranged contingency, the supply ships, should they not be able to reach Camp Conger, were to drop their provisions at a backup location. Much against his men’s will, Greely gave up Camp Conger to chase this hypothetical cache. Camp Conger was more difficult for any future ships to reach but was secure, warm enough, and blessed with seal-hunting enough to keep the team in good health.

Camp Sabine was reached only after a terrifying and near-fatal float down the coast in an ice floe (!) and it proved when they reached it a much less congenial spot for wilderness survival. The resupply missions that hadn’t reached Camp Conger had failed so thoroughly that only a very small drop had even made it to Camp Sabine. Conditions prevented the party from returning to Camp Conger or from crossing the water to another inhabited Arctic station: instead, they wintered in the mouth of hell; seal-hunting here was not favorable, and most days they were only able to supplement their dwindling cache of life-giving calories with a few shrimp and scraps of lichen peeled off the frozen rocks.

Not only ravenous hunger afflicted the party, but scurvy too, and still worse a morale collapse among party members who regarded Lieutenant Greely’s leadership very lightly. Huddled in a makeshift stone hut, three years gone from hearth and home, bored and helpless and stretching out less-than-subsistence rations as far as possible and farther, nerves began to fray … and party members began to succumb to conditions.

Charles Buck Henry did not wear well on this desperate party.

“Henry” was actually the new alias of a German immigrant formerly known as Charles Henry Buck. Buck had served time for embezzling whiskey money from a frontier cavalry company, then escaped and slew a Chinese man in a Deadwood, S.D. brawl. Henry stole from the expedition’s small store of food: he was not the only one, but he was perhaps the baldest thief and the one with the fewest redeeming features that would balance this behavior. He’d been confined in March to his sleeping bag as the closest thing to punishment that Greely could visit on him. Still, Henry stole more. Resentful comrades ostracized him, while silently sizing up the discomfiting likelihood that the hulking German would be odds-on to kill any man among them in a fair scrap.

This day, Greely finally caught him stealing once too often.

Notwithstanding promises given by Pvt C.B. Henry yesterday [to stop stealing] he has since as acknowledged to me tampered with seal thongs if not other food … This pertinacity and audacity is the destruction of this party if not at once ended. Pvt Henry will be Shot today all care being taken to prevent his injuring any one as his physical strength is greater than that of any two men. Decide the manner of death by two ball and one blank cartridge. This order is imperative & absolutely necessary for any chance of life.

A.W. Greely
1 Lt. 5 Cav. ASO & Asst
Cmdg. L.F.B. Expd

That order Greely issued to his able assistant, Sgt. David L. Brainard. Brainard proceeded to gather two other men who contrived to “execute” Henry by a stratagem of approaching Henry armed, but casual, and distracting the unrestrained condemned man long enough to get the drop on him. They shot him dead just as Henry recognized his danger and started to lunge for a nearby axe — an incredibly chancy engagement that could easily have turned the whole expedition into a hyperboreal edition of “The Most Dangerous Game” had the mountainous Henry avoided or survived that gunshot.

Instead, his body with its fatal bullet wound was discovered by accident when the Greely party was at long last rescued later that June, and returned along with just seven** (barely) living souls out of the 25 who set sail in 1881. Those fortunate survivors — the relief mission’s commander reported them “crying like children, hugging each other, frantic with joy”† as their rescue vessel pulled into view — would be forever defined by their participation in the LFBE: toasted for their survival story while also dogged by dark rumors of cannibalism.

According to polar and maritime historian Glenn Stein, FRGS, who spent several years researching this jaw-dropping case,‡ they also closely husbanded the story of their one-time mate’s execution. Mr. Stein is also U.S. Liaison a present-day polar journey, the South 2014 Expedition, and he was gracious enough to speak with Executed Today about the LFBE’s execution.


ET: The Lady Franklin Bay Expedition was a U.S. expedition launched as part of the first International Polar Year. Could you situate the LFBE in the context of polar expeditions at this time?

GS: In the years following the 1875-76 British Arctic Expedition, it was suggested that nations should stop competing for geographical discoveries and instead dispatch a series of coordinated expeditions dedicated to scientific research. Eleven nations took part in the first International Polar Year (IPY) 1882-83, and the United States contributed two components to its first participation in an international scientific effort. In 1881, it was decided that the U.S. Army Signal Corps would establish one scientific station 500 miles from the North Pole, at Lady Franklin Bay, Grinnell Land. The other station was at Point Barrow, Alaska.

The executed man in this instance is Charles Henry, formerly known as Charles Buck. This man had a pretty disreputable history. How was he able to get on this expedition? – And, how did he become the Chicago Times correspondent for this journey? Did he actually file any stories?

Buck enlisted in the Fifth Cavalry under the alias Charles B. Henry, and wrote to Lieutenant Greely from Fort Sidney, Nebraska, in April 1881, volunteering for the expedition. Henry had the strong recommendation of his company commander, Captain George T. Price, to back him up. Greely and Price were friends, so Greely leaned toward taking Henry (who repeatedly telegraphed Greely with reminders of his availability). Another story is that Henry joined from Fort Sidney when one of the original expedition members deserted just before it was to leave. However, as far as I’m aware, there was only one desertion from the LFBE, and that person was replaced by Private Roderick R. Schneider, First Artillery.

Supposedly, since Henry was the only volunteer from the Fifth Cavalry, with a strong recommendation from post commander Lieutenant Colonel Compton, Greely decided to take him.

According to A.L. Todd’s Abandoned (1961), before joining the expedition back East, Henry “got permission to stop off in Chicago to visit relatives, and managed to make an arrangement with the Chicago Times to act as that paper’s special correspondent with the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition.” In his Ghosts of Cape Sabine, Len Guttridge (2000) made references to Henry’s newspaper articles: “One or two eventually published in the Chicago Times attested to an effective if florid command of the English language.”

This expedition lasted three years, 1881-1884, and it came to a considerable amount of grief. Could you sketch out what happened to the LFBE, and how it found itself in such a perilous situation in its last months?

By the end of August 1881, a frame house was constructed at Lady Franklin Bay and named Fort Conger. Over the next two years scientific data was collected and sledging parties were sent out, discovering many new geographic features, and setting north, east, and west “farthest” records. Because of the mismanagement of resupply expeditions from the United States, expedition members initiated a planned retreat by boat to Cape Sabine in August 1883 — but the journey turned into a nightmare. The party eventually ended up at Cape Sabine, where the men constructed a stone house for the winter, with an upturned boat for a roof. It was christened Camp Clay. Throughout the following months, the men’s spirits and energy dwindled, and constant hunger was now their companion. Worse, food was being stolen from the commissary storehouse. More than once, angry accusations flew back and forth within the party. The daily ration for each type of food was measured out to hundredths of an ounce.

The first death occurred on Jan. 18, 1884, when Sergeant William H. Cross died of starvation. In spite of the privations, only one man died that winter, even though scurvy was also present. In the spring Death returned with a vengeance.

So by the end, there’s a party near to starvation, just scraping by on a starvation diet. Naturally there’s a temptation for people to steal from the camp rations.

Henry wasn’t the only person to have stolen, but it seems from your description like he was the most distinctly resented by the rest of the party. Why was that?

During his time at Fort Conger, Henry was the originator of many profane remarks, misdeeds, and lies, so Greely and others had learned not to trust him.

Until the publication of my article, “An Arctic Execution,” LFBE historians consistently wrote that no one on the expedition knew of Henry’s criminal history as a forger, thief and accused murderer. However, I discovered within Sergeant Brainard’s unpublished daily notes that he definitely knew of Henry’s past — so who else knew as well? In consequence, although others also stole food, Henry would have been treated with less tolerance.

The specific details of the execution, and the variations on the story that are given later, are quite fascinating. The execution was ordered by the camp commander, but Henry was not confined and had no idea what was coming, because the shooting party could have been in some danger as well. Given the rough and ready circumstances, why then, does the execution party go to such elaborate ends to anonymize the shooter? There’s the “three guns, two balls” order, and then they can’t comply with that since there’s only one usable rifle, so they swear an oath among themselves never to tell.

Firing squad duty obviously preys upon the conscious and subconscious mind. It’s possible that passing the rifle around and swearing an oath replaced the anonymity provided by the “three guns, two balls” order. Keep in mind that, if the three men survived their Arctic ordeal, their participation could impact them for the rest of their lives — in and out of the Army.

This was particularly true of Sergeant Brainard, who was promised a commission by Greely. Decades after the execution, Brainard declared that “no matter what the provocation, the family of a man doesn’t want to think of him as an executioner.”

As a factual matter, it was either Brainard or Francis Long who pulled the trigger, since Frederick distracted Henry and lured Henry into the trap.


Charles Henry (left), and his two potential executioners: David Brainard (center) and Francis Long (right).

What’s left of Henry is buried in New York. If you really wanted to find out what happened, you would have to exhume the remains. Henry’s sister, Dora Buck, did request the exhumation and autopsy of his body, but these were never allowed to take place. Officially, as my article notes, Henry’s remains were buried with full military honors. What we are left with today are cemetery records, which state that Charles Henry “Died of Starvation.”

And you think Brainard carefully managed the way the dangerous execution story got out.

Brainard is like a historian’s dream. Not only was he there, not only was he a very intelligent individual — but he made a record of many things, keeping daily notes that go from start to finish.

I hand-copied each page, three years of field notes, and I referenced these in my article. Those notes represent his impressions at the time they were written, not edited versions. One crucial thing Brainard recorded about Henry was that he “is a born thief as his 7th Cavalry name will show — a perfect fiend.” That’s significant, because it doesn’t appear in Brainard’s published writings. Why omit that piece of information? There’s one reason: Brainard knew beforehand that Henry was a criminal, and if it was known Brainard possessed this information, then he may appear prejudicial regarding the decision to shoot Henry.

It starts to add up, because who had control of the expedition members’ journals on the passage home? Brainard.

Who wrote up an incomplete journal on the way home — and then, many months later, turned in writings covering several more months — but ending in March 1884? Brainard.

I’ve examined the three volumes of his original journal. Everything was very carefully written, and Brainard made sure the story he wanted told got into these journals.

And what transpired afterward?

Sgt. Brainard had been promised a commission by Greely for his leadership on the LFBE. That’s a huge deal — to get commissioned from the ranks for gallant and meritorious service, and not even in wartime, but peacetime. At that time, and for many years thereafter, he was the only living officer of the Army, active or retired, holding a commission awarded for specific distinguished services. I believe Brainard was a “good guy” and a stand-up guy, but at the same time, would he really chance ruining his opportunity to get that commission? The whole execution business could have made things really difficult for him.

When they evacuated Fort Conger, and later on were literally floating south on a piece of ice, there was almost a mutiny. The mutineers went to Brainard, saying Greely had to be relieved of command, that he was going to get everyone killed. But Brainard wouldn’t go along with it — in part, he probably realized it would destroy his future.

You have to start looking at these motivations; and it’s not an entirely unsympathetic view, because people in these positions had jobs to do.

It took a lot of pushing to get Brainard’s commission to Second Lieutenant approved, and this didn’t happen until October 1886. In 1917, when he was near the end of his career, he was actually appointed Brigadier General. Brainard went from buck private to Brigadier General!

After the LFBE’s rescue later in 1884, how was the matter of the execution handled? I’m reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that, while it was not a secret, it was also downplayed as a public matter in the immediate aftermath — Henry buried with full military honors, that sort of thing. As it emerged more publicly thereafter, was there ever any controversy or a significant sentiment that Greely had handled the situation improperly? Was there ever a question about the legality of his order?

Greely made a verbal report regarding the execution to his departmental superiors several days before Henry’s burial. He then wrote to Adjutant General of the Army R.C. Drum in August 1884, to report Henry’s execution and request that a court of inquiry be ordered or a court martial convened regarding the matter. Drum responded in November 1884 that after examining the expedition’s records, “the Secretary of War entertains no doubt of the necessity, and the entire propriety of your action in ordering the execution of Private Henry, under the circumstances and in the manner set forth in your report.”

It was understood that any military officer operating in the field possesses a fair degree of discretion in carrying out orders, and Greely had Henry executed in order to preserve lives.

Newspaper articles certainly featured Henry’s execution, but stories of cannibalism (including the condition of Henry’s remains) and the political scandal related to the mishandling of the attempted relief of Greely prior to his rescue were much more high profile stories.

You have a professional interest in polar exploration, and obviously starvation risks are endemic to these situations when matters go awry. Have you encountered any similar instances of a polar party executing one of its members for the sake of maintaining discipline?

A somewhat similar execution scenario, also an attempt to preserve the lives of starving men, had played out during Sir John Franklin’s 1819-22 Arctic Land Expedition. A detachment of four men from the expedition, including Surgeon John Richardson, discovered that their comrade, Midshipman Robert Hood, had been murdered by an Iroquois voyageur named Michel Teroahauté (also known as Ferohaite).

Under the circumstances, Richardson shot Michel to save their own lives.

How did you come to find out about this story and why did you decide to research it in such depth? Over a century on from the events themselves, what does the fate of Charles Henry have to tell us today?

I can trace back my knowledge of the execution to at least September 1988, when I bought a copy of The Polar Passion, by Farley Mowat (1967). Several years later, I acquired a large collection of items once belonging to General Brainard, which included most of his medals and orders, photographs, books, and a bone knife he brought back from the Arctic. Brainard is a fascinating historical figure and human being (I like to call him the quintessential American), and I spent a good deal of time researching and writing about his life. In the process I discovered there were many contradictory details about the execution.

On July 13, 2005, I was sitting at an outside bar in Jamaica, when it dawned on me that if I dug deep enough, I just might be able to figure out what really happened during the execution of Private Henry.

So, I began jotting down notes on three 4″ x 5″ pieces of paper — “1. Primary Question: Who was the shooter?” Of the three men involved, the evidence dictates the trigger man must have been either Brainard or Long — but in the absence of conclusive evidence we’ll probably never know which one. And I ultimately decided that’s okay, because it’s the way the three wretched souls wanted it to be on that fateful summer day in 1884, and I needed to respect their wishes.

The events during the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, especially Charles Henry’s fate, are reminders of how crises bring out the best — and worst — in human nature. At various times in our lives we’re all confronted with personal crises: how we deal with them is what counts. Writing “An Arctic Execution” forced me to stretch my mind beyond what I thought were its limits to attempt to understand defining moments in the lives of human beings who were at the brink of oblivion.

A few books about the Greely expedition

* This expedition established a “farthest north” record: it was for the next several years the most northerly latitude that any explorer could document ever attaining.

** One of the seven retrieved by the Thetis, Sgt. Joseph Elison, was at death’s door. Wasted to 78 pounds and stricken with frostbite and gangrene that required his rescuers to amputate both hands and both legs, Elison died at sea — leaving just six survivors of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition who would ever again set foot on American soil.

San Francisco Bulletin, July 18, 1884, quoting Winfield Scott Schley — later famous as a Spanish-American War hero.

‡ Glenn M. Stein, “An Arctic Execution: Private Charles B. Henry of the United States Lady Franklin Bay Expedition 1881-84,” Arctic, Vol. 64, No. 4 (December 2011). Read it here (pdf).

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1876: Kenneth Brown, father of Edith Cowan

Add comment June 10th, 2011 Headsman

Australian liberal campaigner Edith Cowan — a notable suffragist, and later an activist for disadvantaged children — enjoys the distinction of being her country’s first female Member of Parliament.

But Cowan was disadvantaged herself in her own childhood by the hanging on this date in 1876 of her father, explorer Kenneth Brown.

While Kenneth entered this world in England, his family emigrated to Australia in his infancy, and there established the pastoral outpost Glengarry Station.

Is this sufficient to justify a wholly unrelated excerpt from Glengarry Glen Ross? Reader, it is.

Kenneth Brown would come to spend a lot of time at that station, in between jaunts exploring Western Australia. Edith Cowan — nee Edith Brown, obviously — was born there, though her mother (Brown’s first wife) died in childbirth a few years later.

Brown’s remarriage to Mary Tindall was less than an unqualified success.

He and Mary regularly argued about both Kenneth’s drinking, and his suspicion that Mary was unfaithful. After an afternoon of drinking and arguing, Kenneth shot and killed Mary. There were three trials and two juries were discharged before a third reached a guilty verdict, all amid embarrassing publicity and gossip. Brown’s appeal for clemency was denied and in 1876, when Edith was 15, he was executed for his wife’s murder. More than 100 years later, Edith Cowan’s grandson wrote that the effect on the family was crippling, and extended on into later generations. (Source)

Even “crippled” by the family tragedy, Edith went on to earn the Order of the British Empire and grace Australia’s $50 note.

Edith Cowan isn’t the only notable family connection for this date’s featured act: Kenneth Brown’s younger brother was politician Maitland Brown, infamous to Australia’s aboriginals as the leader of the La Grange expedition/massacre.

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1938: Margarita Arsenieva, the explorer’s widow

Add comment August 21st, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1938, the widow of the Russian explorer and ethnographer Vladimir Arseniev was convicted in a drumhead trial of espionage and sabotage, and summarily shot at Vladivostok.

Vladimir Arseniev explored the distant Far East on foot with the help of local guides during the last years of the tsar.

Arseniev formed a lifelong friendship with one such guide, and gave the man’s name to the title of a widely-read book about his explorations — Dersu Uzala.

Japanese director Akira Kurosawa adapted Dersu Uzala to the silver screen in a 1975 joint Japanese-Soviet production that pocketed an Oscar as Best Foreign Language Film. (The entire film is available online through Veoh.)

Arseniev died in 1930 — not by the executioner’s offices — and was survived by his wife and scientific assistant Margarita.

As the subsequent, terrible decade unfolded, Margarita and other members of the Far Eastern Academy of Sciences came under official political scrutiny that would eventually lead to a purging.

Arrested once in 1934, and again in 1937, on the usual right-Trotskyist-conspirator stuff (Vladimir Arseniev — a suspect fellow in his later years for a potentially un-Soviet attitude to “the national question” — was the ringleader, dontcha know?), Arsenieva and a number of colleagues waited a year to get their 10-minute trial this date before assizes of the Military Collegium of the Supreme Court. Six in all, including Margarita Arsenieva, were held “subject to immediate execution.”

The Arseniev’s orphaned teenage daughter Natalia was subsequently consigned to the gulag.

Most of the sources about Margarita Arsenieva available online are in Russian, including:

* This German text gives Aug. 23 as the date of the trial and execution, and a couple of other online sources use that date instead.

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1538: Diego de Almagro, explorer of Chile

Add comment July 8th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1538, Spanish conquistador Diego de Almagro was executed* at Cuzco by his vengeful rivals, the Pizarro brothers.

Conquistadoring with the rapacious Pizarros was a good way to get rich, get dead, or possibly both.

Almagro, a soldier, got to the New World in 1514 and soon fell in with alpha male Pizarro Francisco.** He’d become an adjunct to the latter’s conquest of the Incan Empire in the 1520s and 1530s; sent to capture the Incan city of Quito, Almagro found it razed by its defenders, and he sycophantically re-founded it as San Francisco de Quito.†

Things weren’t buddy-buddy for long.

The Iberian mothership divided Spain’s putative New World possessions north and south, putting Almagro in command of the southern cone. Great news … now all he had to do was actually take control of it.

Personally financing an expedition on the expectation of fabulous riches to be seized, Almagro instead foundered in Chile’s northern valleys in a frustrating environment of natives equally hostile and impecunious. After a couple years, he gave up and returned to Peru, angrier and poorer for his trouble — and there found that he could exploit the Spanish preoccupation with intransigent Incan chief Manco Inca to nick the capital city of Cuzco for himself.

Almagro actually had the lesser Pizarros — Gonzalo and Hernando — prisoner for a while, but he bartered them away to Francisco for a hill of beans (that is, a promise not to attack), and the Pizarros took their city back by routing Almagro at the Battle of Las Salinas.

The sentence of death against as august a personage as the appointed ruler of Nueva Toledo shocked many, and it was carried out against Almagro’s own entreaties for an appeal to the crown.


Detail view of a print of Almagro’s capture and execution. (Click for the full image.)

Francisco Pizarro would redeem his want of clemency towards his former partner in his own blood: in 1541, Almagro’s son, Diego de Almagro II or el Mozo, murdered Pizarro in an attempted coup d’etat. (Almagro the Younger, too, would be executed for his trouble.)

Although he was an important conquistador who spent most of his time at points further north, Almagro is best remembered today not in Peru but in Chile — for his abortive and disappointing expedition made him that land’s first European “discoverer”.

* Either beheaded or garroted.

** Almagro also rubbed shoulders with Vasco Nunez de Balboa.

† He pulled a similar trick with Trujillo, naming it after Francisco Pizarro’s birthplace.

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1520: Gaspar Quesada, Magellan’s expedition mutineer

2 comments April 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date* in 1520, on his famous voyage of circumnavigation, explorer Ferdinand Magellan ordered the immediate execution of a mutinous captain.

Not to be trifled with.

Having alit just days before at the natural harbor of Puerto San Julien on the Brazilian Argentine coast (Magellan named it) with plans to winter there, the overweening Portuguese explorer faced an uprising of grumpy Spanish officers.

Gaspar Quesada, captain of the Concepcion, along with Luis de Mendoza of the Victoria and recently displaced San Antonio skipper Juan de Cartagena, seized some of the expedition’s ships during the night of April 1-2.

Since you know Magellan’s name five centuries later, you already know he quashed it.

As the sovereign of this fragile floating world, Magellan had little choice but to treat a challenge to his authority mercilessly.**

Though accounts are inconsistent, it seems Mendoza was boldly slain by one of Magellan’s men meeting him under color of “negotiation”.


Mendoza’s assassination. From this site.

Mendoza was then posthumously beheaded and quartered along with Gaspar Quesada. Juan de Cartagena was either executed as well, or else caught a “break”: some sources relate that, instead of executing Cartagena, Magellan had him marooned.

the twentieth of June [1578], wee harboured ourselues againe in a very good harborough, called by Magellan Port S. Julian, where we found a gibbet standing upon the maine, which we supposed to be the place where Magellan did execution upon some of his disobedient and rebellious company.

From a member of the Francis Drake expedition. Just 12 days later and at the very same place, Drake visited a similar penalty for a similar offense upon one of his own crew.

* “‘The authorities’ are divertingly divergent on the precise date of these events,” says O.H.K. Spate in The Spanish Lake, referring specifically to the dates of the mutiny. “Denucé puts them on Easter Sunday and Monday, 1–2 April; Merriman on Easter Sunday and Monday, 8–9 April; Nowell on Palm Sunday and the next day, with the trial verdict on 7 April. By the Julian calendar, in use until 1582, the dates would be 1–2 April; by the Gregorian, ten days later. Pigafetta and Maximilian, who slur over the whole affair, give no dates at all. It is not of vast moment.” Clearly, O.H.K. Spate never had to write an almanac blog.

Anyway, there’s some primary sourcing on this affair here.

** Though Magellan made an example of the leaders, he pragmatically spared about 40 others after keeping them in chains and working the pumps for three months. After all, the man still needed to crew his ships.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Argentina,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Dismembered,Drawn and Quartered,Execution,History,Military Crimes,Mutiny,Notable Participants,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,Spain,Summary Executions

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1857: Adolf Schlagintweit, intrepid explorer

2 comments August 26th, 2009 dogboy

Sometimes it’s better to let your curiosity rest for a little while, especially when a violent despot takes charge of the region you want to do geological studies on. That was the takeaway lesson for Adolf Schlagintweit (English Wikipedia page | German) when Wali Khan discharged the German explorer’s head in 1857 in the Kashgar region of present-day China.

Schlagintweit and his brothers, Hermann and Robert, were in pursuit of knowledge, following up Hermann and Adolf’s drab and long-titled work Untersuchungen über die physikalische Geographie der Alpen, in ihren Beziehungen zu den phänomenon der Gletscher, zur Geologie, Meteorologie, und Pflanzengeographie (Studies of the Physical Geography of the Alps, in Relation to the Phenomena of Glaciers, Weather, and Phytogeography) and equally odorless (but far more accessibly titled) successor Neue Untersuchungen über die physikalische Geographie und Geologie der Alpen (New Studies of the Physical Geography and Geology of the Alps), authored by all three.

The Schlagintweits were successfully largely because of their ability to draw: their writing left much to be desired, and their scientific skills were frequently a target of ridicule after the voyage that saw the end of Adolf.

The East India Company funded that venture, which was intended to take magnetic field measurements, beginning in 1854. The trek was spurred on by the then-85-year-old Alexander von Humboldt, who had extensively traversed Latin America and attempted the first scientific description of its geology and wildlife; von Humboldt, a noted scientist throughout Europe, convinced the East India Company to pony up large amounts of money for what he expected to be a significant geological study, one that he long sought but could not undertake himself. This relationship is explored in-depth by Gabriel Finkelstein in his well-written History of Science article “‘Conquerors of the Künlün? The Schlagintweit Mission to High Asia, 1854–57”.

The brothers made their way to central India and from there journeyed north into the Himalayas. They did not travel together, but separated and re-united occasionally to go over samples, pictures, and notes.

After their last meeting in the fall of 1856, Adolf’s itinerary brought him through the mountains of Tibet and into present-day China, near the borders with Kyrgystan and Pakistan. It was in this Kashgar region that the geologist found himself embroiled in what would be the last in a series of revolts by the East Turkestan Khojas, a group claiming nobility in Eastern Kazakhstan from the time of Genghis Khan.*

Adolf’s end is largely shrouded in mystery, but some contemporaneous accounts given to the British government provide a minimal sketch. Schlagintweit’s ostensible goal was to reach the city of Kashgar; despite much of his party deserting, and in spite of a warning from fleeing refugees that the notably cruel Wali Khan had initiated a rebellion, Schlagintweit pressed on.

He was met at the city’s border and brought before the Khan, who, having little use for European interlopers wandering his territory, accused the scientist of being a spy and had Adolf summarily beheaded.

Adolf’s notebook was later purchased by a passing Persian from the tobacco shop, where its pages were being used to wrap tobacco leaves. The purchaser tracked down a skull he believed to be Schlagintweit’s and brought the chartaceous and skeletal evidence to India.

The book published from the travels of the Schlagintweits is available here. It has been widely panned as dull.

* Four years after Wali Khan was deposed once again by the Chinese, Uighurs successfully battled for the region’s brief independence. Tensions in the region, needless to say, have not settled.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,History,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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