1799: Andrea Serrao, Bishop of Potenza

1 comment February 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1799, the Bishop of Potenza was lynched by the faithful.

Andrea Serrao English Wikipedia entry | Italian) was a late disciple of the reformist Jansenist movement which tended among many other things to such Enlightenment-friendly notions as liberty of conscience, the reduction of the papal authority, and “regalism” — the doctrine of secular supremacy over ecclesiastical.

According to Owen Chadwick’s The Popes and European Revolution, Serrao as Bishop of the southern Italian city of Potenza

found a cathedral in disrepair, a seminary closed for the last eleven years. He raised the money for a rebuilding of the cathedral, reopened the seminary, of which the products were suspect for their ideas of liberty. He was as strong a reformer as [fellow Jansenist Bishop Scipione de’]Ricci,* and with many of the same ideas. He held a diocesan synod which is unknown because the acts were afterwards destroyed by government; but evidently its conclusions resembled those of Ricci’s Synod of Pistoia. He may have been more radical than Ricci, for he wanted clergy to be allowed to marry.

In December of 1798, Bourbon authority collapsed in the Kingdom of Naples — which ruled all of southern Italy, including Potenza — leading to the formation of the Parthenopean Republic. Serrao fully embraced it, “and urged them to obey the new government; and at the end of his address the people cried ‘Long live the French government. Long live liberty!’ and rushed out into the piazza to plant a tree of liberty. Bishop Serrao then accepted the office of civil commissioner of Potenza.” (Chadwick again)

But this Republic was destined for an imminent and bloody conclusion.

The most immediate reaction, and the one that led to Serrao’s abrupt death, was the summons of Fabrizio Cardinal Ruffo to a popular anti-Republican movement, called Sanfedismo (“Holy Faith”). In early February, a bare two weeks after the Parthenopean Republic’s establishment, Ruffo ventured from the royal refuge on Sicily and landed at his native Calabria like Che Guevara, with nothing but a handful of companions.

“Brave and courageous Calabrians, unite now under the standard of the Holy Cross and of our beloved sovereign,” Ruffo’s summons to a resistance implored. “Do not wait for the enemy to come and contaminate our home neighbourhoods. Let us march to confront him, to repel him, to hunt him out of our kingdom and out of Italy and to break the barbarous chains of our holy Pontiff. May the banner of the Holy Cross secure you total victory.”

Ruffo’s message was a winner and almost instantly began attracting holy guerrillas by the hundreds; in a few months’ time, Ruffo secured the surrender of the Republicans in Naples itself, by which time his army is reputed to have numbered 17,000.

And even in its earliest promulgation, it attained — seemingly to Andrea Serrao’s surprise — strength enough to overwhelm that tree of liberty stuff in Potenza within days of Ruffo’s landing. Back to Chadwick:

When Ruffo’s bands drew near to Potenza, many peasants and some priests regarded Bishop Serrao as ‘the enemy of the Pope, the king, and God’. Warned to escape, he said that he trusted his fellow-citizens. When the professors and students at the seminary wanted to make a bodyguard, he forbade them to arm.

Very early on 24 February 1799 soldiers of the Potenza guard smashed the tree of liberty, and raided the bishop’s palace. They came upon Serrao still in bed, and killed him with two shots of a pistol. Bleeding to death, he uttered the words ‘Long live the faith of Jesus Christ! Long live the Republic!’ The guards broke into the seminary next door, and murdered the rector as his students fled. After sacking palace and seminary they cut off the heads of bishop and rector and carried them in triumph round the city on pikes.

* There’s an interesting public domain biography of Ricci which, without any direct reference to Serrao, delves into the theological and political conflicts of the age that would have been of interest to our principal.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Execution,God,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Lynching,Naples,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Religious Figures,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1902: Joe Higginbotham, criminal assailant

Add comment February 24th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1902, Joe Higginbotham was hanged for raping and slashing the throat of a Mrs. Ralph Webber.

The State (Columbia, S.C.), Jan. 24, 1902

This headline-making outrage occurred in Lynchburg, Virginia, and the town was on the verge of living up to its name before officers spirited the black janitor away to Roanoke for safekeeping; in Roanoke, military guardsmen were scrambled for security against a rumor that Higginbotham’s life would be attempted even there.

One might well wonder why the bother, as the formal proceedings against the culprit blessed by the law entailed very little deliberation beyond Judge Lynch. Mrs. Webber survived her injury and once her condition stabilized, she was brought to the jail on January 21 to make an identification. “She at once identified him as the man who assaulted her. The negro broke down and confessed to the crime with which he is charged, and further stated that he had attempted some months ago to assault a white girl who was a patient in a Lynchburg hospital.” (Charlotte Observer, Jan. 22, 1902)

Two days after that meeting, Higginbotham pleaded guilty at a short trial under heavy guard back in Lynchburg. The sentence was imposed for exactly one month out — plus one more day so as not to fall on a Sunday — and it went off as scheduled, undisturbed by any appeal or reprieve.

The Higginbotham name will be distinctive to students of 20th century American law, as it was borne by Judge A. Leon Higginbotham, one of the greatest jurists never to reach the Supreme Court.* (Higginbotham was reportedly considered for the seat Thurgood Marshall eventually received.) Since it appears from this message board that Higginbotham descendants in the Lynchburg and Amherst County part of Virginia count the judge among their kin, we couldn’t help but wonder whether, like radio host Tom Joyner discovered, there might be an execution hidden in the family tree.

Resident genealogist and occasional guest poster Golde Singer did some research on this proposition.

Judge Higginbotham grew up in New Jersey but census records confirm that his father Aloysius was in fact born in Virginia to a family with deep roots in Amherst County. Aloysius’s move to the Trenton, N.J. area in the first decade of the 20th century would have put him on the leading edge of the Great Migration of southern blacks to northern industrial cities.

Suggestive as that might be, Golde’s search through Aloysius’s family did not appear to turn up any clear link to a Joseph Higginbotham; indeed, Higginbotham the criminal assailant was reportedly himself an adopted or foster child whose lineage appears obscure. The trail from this point dissipates in history’s marshes. The Higginbotham name is quite widespread in the Lynchburg area; family ancestries for the African-American Higginbothams appear to trace back to slavery among the white family of Captain John Higginbotham, a Revolutionary War officer whose own father relocated to Amherst, Va. from Barbados. (Different English Higginbothams made good in India.)

A generalist site such as ours leaves off short of the close reading of archival records or research into family lore that would required here. (Perhaps there are some readers prepared to shed some light?) In the end, of course, any hypothetical family connection between these two very different men would count as little more than historical curiosity.

* Full disclosure: this author never had the privilege of meeting Judge Higginbotham, but counts as a mentor to his death penalty interest one of the judge’s proteges.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Attempted Murder,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,USA,Virginia

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1823: William North, prostrated homosexual

Add comment February 24th, 2016 Headsman

From the Morning Chronicle of Feb. 25, 1823, via Rictor Norton. (Spaces added for readability.)

EXECUTION. — Yesterday morning, at an early hour, considerable numbers of spectators assembled before the Debtors’ door at Newgate, to witness the execution of William North, convicted in september Sessions of an unnatural crime.

The wretched culprit was 54 years of age, and had a wife living.

On his trial, he appeared a fine, stout, robust man, and strongly denied his guilt. On his being brought before the Sheriffs yesterday morning, he appeared to have grown at least ten years older, during the five months he has been in a condemned cell, with the horrid prospect before him of dying a violent death. His body had wasted to the mere anatomy of a man, his cheeks had sunk, his eyes had become hollow, and such was his weakness, that he could scarcely stand without support.

Though the consolations of religion were frequently offered to him, yet he could not sufficiently calm his mind to listen, or participate in them, even to the moment of his death. Sunday night he could not sleep, his mouth was parched with a burning fever; he occasionaqlly ejaculated “Oh God!” and “I’m lost;” and at other times he appeared quite childish; his imbecility of mind seemed to correspond with the weakness of his body. He exclaimed on one occasion “I have suffered sufficient punishment in this prison to atone for the crimes I have committed;” and when the Rev. Dr. Cotton and Mr. Baker, who attended him, asked him if he believed in Christ, and felt that he was a sinner? He replied “I pray, but cannot feel.”

The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not administered to him, probably on account of his occasional delirium, and the generally disordered state of his mental faculties.

At five minutes before eight yesterday morning he was pinioned by the executioner in the press room, in the presence of the sheriffs and officers of the goal. As St. Sepulchre’s church clock struck eight, the culprit, carrying the rope, attended by the executioner, and clergyman, moved in procession with the sheriffs, &c. on to the scaffold.

On arriving at the third station, the prison bell tolled, and Dr. Cotton commenced at the same moment reading the funeral service “I am the resurrection and the life,” &c. of which the wretched man seemed to be totally regardless. On his being assisted up the steps of the scaffold, reason returned; he became aware of the dreadful death to which he was about to be consigned; his looks of terror were frightful; his expression of horror, when the rope was being placed round his neck, made every spectator shudder.

It was one of the most trying scenes to the clergymen they ever witnessed — never appeared a man so unprepared, so unresigned to his fate. — The signal being given the drop fell, and the criminal expired in less than a minute. He never struggled after he fell.

The body hung an hour, and was then cut down for interment. — The six unhappy men who are doomed to suffer on to-morrow morning, appear to be perfectly resigned to their fate.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Hanged,History,Homosexuals,Public Executions,Sex

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1860: Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, Bareilly rebel

Add comment February 24th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1860, the British hanged Khan Bahadur Khan Rohilla, a Pashtun leader who when India revolted in 1857 set up a short-lived independent government at Bareilly.*

Having word of the burgeoning rebellion elsewhere on the subcontinent, Bareilly’s native troops mutinied on May 31, 1857. Three captured European civilians were shot that evening; three more followed the next day.

Though Bareilly did not furnish the most spectacular massacre of the rebellion, it was one of several** that became grist for industrial Britain’s burgeoning mass media … and reports of bloody deeds prepared the British public to respond in kind. One Englishman wrote the London Times on June 3 (it was published on July 14): “When this crisis shall have passed, stern and unflinching vengeance on those who have mutinied and been guilty of atrocities, tempered with judicious and gracious clemency to those who were only misled into a willingness to joining them, will, I fondly hope, tend greatly to create and consolidate a lasting loyalty throughout our native troops.”

Other Britons were far more interested in the unflinching vengeance than the lasting loyalty. Outraged at the news that the Governor-General of India was offering mutineers amnesty, one wrote in a private correspondence on October 4,

I wish I were Commander in Chief in India. The first thing I would do to strike that Oriental race with amazement (not in the least regarding them as if they lived in the Strand, London, or at Camden Town), would be to proclaim to them in their language, that I considered my Holding that appointment by the leave of God, to mean that I should do my utmost to exterminate the Race upon whom the stain of the late cruelties rested; and that I begged them to do me the favor to observe that I was there for that purpose and no other, and was now proceeding, with all convenient dispatch and merciful swiftness of execution, to blot it out of mankind and raze it off the face of the Earth.

That imperial genocide enthusiast was a liberal man of letters known to be downright softhearted when beholding his own countrymen condemned to death singly: Charles Dickens.

After the initial shock of the various risings, Great Britain set about methodically putting down the revolt.

In 1858, it was Bareilly’s turn. Fresh off defeating the most vigorous rebel commander Tantia Tope, the British commander Colin Campbell wrapped up the Indian campaign by marching his Highland regiments “in red coats, kilt, and feather bonnet, under a blazing sun, showing 112 degrees in the shade.”

That wished-for stern and unflinching vengeance marched with them.

Sergeant David McAusland of the 42nd Highland Regiment recalled that during his service in Bareilly during the Rebellion, “three scaffolds and six whipping posts stood outside of the town along side of the jail and there [took place] executions to the number of six every day.” The judge in charge of trials had lost his wife during the conflict, and had told McAusland, “if ever I get the chance of [judging] these Black rebels I will hang a man for every hair that was in my wife’s head.” McAusland responded by asking him how many men he had executed already, “he told me close on 700 well I said if you just continue you will have made good your work and turning to Sergt … Aden I said you mind what Sir Colin [Campbell] said to us at Cawnpore that every man that had a black face was our enemy and we could not do wrong in shooting him so you know how to act here.” (Source pdf, an essay eventually integrated into the author’s book-length study Martial Races: The Military, Race and Masculinity in British Imperial Culture, 1857-1914

As the man who had styled himself chief of Bareilly in opposition to British power could scarcely expect to escape such indiscriminate revenge.

“The complicity of this wretched man in the atrocities committed at Bareilly admits of no doubt whatever, and to allow him to escape from the gallows would be an outrage upon the memory of his unhappy victims,” the London Times reported on April 21, 1860, upon receiving (much belated) word of his execution.

* Great Britain’s initial seizure of Bareilly (Rohilkhand) from Khan Bahadur Khan’s ancestors in a 1774 war became part of the impeachment case Edmund Burke leveled against colonial official Warren Hastings. As we’ve seen elsewhere on this site, that remarkable charge also involved a shady execution.

** The largest and most inflammatory, of course, was Cawnpore/Kanpur.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,History,India,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Power,Public Executions,Separatists,Treason

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1942: Five Jews in Sokal

2 comments February 24th, 2012 Headsman

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

The synagogue at Sokal.

On this day in 1942, the Nazis shot five Jewish men from Sokal, which was then part of Poland and now belongs to the Ukraine.

During the first years of the war, the Germans had designated Sokal as a Judenstadt (literally “Jew-town”), a central destination point for all Jews expelled from nearby towns and villages. Or, as diarist Moshe Maltz put it, “A solitary island in a sea of blood.”

It was Maltz, an Orthodox Jew and native of Sokal, who recorded the executions described in this entry. He kept regular notes throughout the war about the plight of Sokal’s Jews — not a diary exactly, but a chronicle, meant for the benefit of history.

On February 24, five Jews from Sokal were taken to a place somewhere on the outskirts of town and shot. One of them was Yeshaye, son of Yankel the coachman. In 1940, during the period of Soviet occupation, Yeshaye had been a coachman working for the NKVD. Now the Gestapo called him and ordered him to turn over to them the reins of his horses. They said to him, “We’ll give you three days to deliver those reins to us. If we don’t get them by that time, we’ll have you shot.” Yeshaye thought that the Gestapo must be joking. How could he go on working as a coachman without his reins? Unfortunately for Yeshaye, the Gestapo men were in dead earnest.

Also among the five shot was Dr. Knopf, a lawyer who had converted to Christianity. The Germans had ordered him to dismiss his Gentile maid so that she could be sent to work in Germany. Knopf petitioned the Gestapo to let him have his maid back. That’s why the Germans shot him. Despite his baptism, he was simply not an Aryan. The third victim was blind Yankel, who was found guilty of buying and slaughtering a calf. Under German occupation regulations, cattle can be slaughtered only by officially approved butchers.

In October 1942, the Jews of Sokal were confined to a ghetto. The following month Maltz wrote, with the same dispassionate tone, of the murder of his fourteen-month-old daughter at the hands of the Nazis.

Later in November he escaped from the ghetto with his wife and surviving son. They had made an arrangement with a Polish woman who lived nearby, and moved into her hayloft, above the pigsty.

Eventually fourteen people from three families in all would come to live in the hayloft. All of them survived except Maltz’s sister, who died of fever while in hiding. The others staggered out into daylight, barely able to walk, when the Russians liberated the area in July 1944.

Maltz and his entire family eventually emigrated to the USA.

After his death in 1993, his diary was translated and published under the title Years of Horror, Glimpse of Hope: The Diary of a Family in Hiding. In 2009, a Pennsylvania State University professor made a prize-winning documentary based on the book, called No. 4 Street of Our Lady. You can watch it on Netflix or read an article about it here.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Jews,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Poland,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1865: John Yates Beall, well-connected Confederate

8 comments February 24th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1865, Confederate John Yates Beall was hanged at Governors Island, New York, as a spy and saboteur.

This Virginian was knocked out of regular service through injuries early in the Civil War, but proceeded to a privateering career harassing Union shipping.

The pinpricks inflicted by Beall’s couple of ships was hardly calamitous for the North, but what he lacked in resources he made up in persistence.

Captured and exchanged midway through the war, he returned to his swashbuckling ways. But sneaking into New York from Canada in a bid to free rebel prisoners, Beall was caught again trying to derail trains — and secretly condemned by a military tribunal.

When the news of his impending execution got out, six Senators and 85 other members of Congress* appealed for leniency.

Despite Lincoln’s reputation for clemency, he did not grant it in this case.

“For days before the execution,” it was said, “the President closed the doors of the executive palace against all suppliants, male or female, and his ears against all appeals, whether with the tongue of men or angels in behalf of the unfortunate prisoner. From the first Mr. Lincoln had responded to all applications for his interposition — ‘Gen. Dix may dispose of the case as he pleases — I will not interfere.’ Gen. Dix on his part replied, ‘All now rests with the President — as far as my action rests there is not a gleam of hope.’ Thus they stood as the pillars of the gallows, on which Beall’s fate was suspended and between them he died.” (Source)

Here’s the capture-trial-and-execution portions of a homemade documentary on Beall (also check the preceding parts 1, 2, and 3)

There’s a strange tradition that the hanged man was a personal friend of John Wilkes Booth, and that the actor’s assassination of Honest Abe seven weeks after Beall’s hanging was partly motivated by personal revenge.

* One of Beall’s clemency supporters was future assassinated U.S. President James Garfield.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,New York,Pirates,Power,Soldiers,Spies,USA,War Crimes,Wartime Executions

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