1525: Cuauhtémoc, the last Aztec emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2018 Headsman

Although the primary accounts — those by conquistadors Hernán Cortés and Bernal Díaz del Castillo, and historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara* — did not explicitly record the date, February 28 is the traditionally recognized anniversary of the execution of the last Aztec emperor, Cuauhtémoc.

A monument to Cuauhtemoc in Mexico City. (Author’s photo; public domain)

Cuauhtemoc (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was enthroned early in 1521, in a Tenochtitlan already in the train of devastation brought by the Spanish, which had over the preceding months laid low the Emperor Moctezuma II (by violence) and his brother Cuitlahuac (by smallpox, a disease that halved the city’s population within a year).

He was about 23 or 24 years old, a nobleman who must have distinguished himself in war — “a handsome man, both as regards his countenance and his figure,” in Bernal Diaz’s estimation; “a valiant man and a good warrior” by Gomara’s account.

And it would fall to him to bear his proud kingdom’s ruin.

Having previously been welcomed to Tenochtitlan as guests, Cortes and the Spanish had fought their way out and now returned as besiegers, joined by most of the Aztecs’ resentful former subject kingdoms. They soon had Tenochtitlan in a stranglehold, undaunted by the frightening sacrifice of captured prisoners.

all in a moment the large drum of Huitzilopochtli again resounded from the summit of the temple, accompanied by all the hellish music of shell trumpets, horns, and other instruments. The sound was truly dismal and terrifying, but still more agonizing was all this to us when we looked up and beheld how the Mexicans were mercilessly sacrificing to their idols our unfortunate companions, who had been captured in Cortes’ flight across the opening.

We could plainly see the platform, with the chapel in which those cursed idols stood; how the Mexicans had adorned the heads of the Spaniards with feathers, and compelled their victims to dance round the god Huitzilopochtli; we saw how they stretched them out at full length on a large stone, ripped open their breasts with flint knives, tore out the palpitating heart, and offered it to their idols. Alas! we were forced to be spectators of all this, and how they then seized hold of the dead bodies by the legs and threw them headlong down the steps of the temple, at the bottom of which other executioners stood ready to receive them, who severed the arms, legs, and heads from the bodies, drew the skin off the faces, which were tanned with the beards still adhering to them, and produced as spectacles of mockery and derision at their feasts ; the legs, arms, and other parts of the body being cut up and devoured!

In this way the Mexicans served all the Spaniards they took prisoners; and the entrails alone were thrown to the tigers, lions, otters, and serpents, which were kept in cages. These abominable barbarities we were forced to witness with our own eyes from our very camp; and the reader may easily imagine our feelings, how excessively agonizing! the more so as we were so near our unfortunate companions without being able to assist them. Every one of us thanked God from the bottom of his soul for His great mercy in having rescued us from such a horrible death!

-Bernal Diaz

Wracked by famine after Cortes successfully cut off its food and water, Tenochtitlan succumbed that August. (The conquistadors found they could barely endure the stench of countless rotting bodies as they took control of the famished city.) When captured, Cuauhtemoc implored Cortes through tears (again according to Bernal Diaz),

I have done what I was bound to do in the defence of my metropolis, and of my subjects. My resources have now become entirely exhausted. I have succumbed to superior power, and stand a prisoner before you. Now draw the dagger which hangs at your belt, and plunge it into my bosom.

There would be no bosom-daggering. Cortes had a much worse fate in mind.

He saluted Cuauhtemoc for his intrepidity in defense, vowing to maintain the latter as the ruler of Mexico … Cortes’s ruler, to ratify the dictates of the conquerors, beginning with commanding his remaining loyalists to surrender. Cuauhtemoc obeyed, with what posterity can only guess must have been fathomless shame and sorrow.

Upon humiliation, Cortes heaped physical torture when the invaders’ ransack of their captured city turned up far less lesser quantities of material loot than they had anticipated — torture which Cuauhtemoc and a cousin-king of a loyal Aztec ally both endured heroically without augmenting the Spanish bottom line. Bernal Diaz once again:

The next thing which Cortes did was to collect all the gold, silver, and jewels that had been found in Mexico, of which, however, there was very little; for Quauhtemoctzin, it was said, had ordered all the treasures to be thrown into the lake four days previous to his capture. A great quantity had likewise been purloined by the Tlascallans, Tezcucans, Huexotzincans, Cholullans, and other auxiliary troops which had assisted us in the siege, besides what had fallen into the hands of the troops on board the brigantines.

The crown officials were positive that Quauhtemoctzin had concealed the greater part, and asserted that Cortes was very pleased that the monarch refused to say a word where it was hidden; for he would then be able to get the whole treasure into his own possession.

The officers then proposed that Quauhtemoctzin and the king of Tlacupa, his most intimate friend and cousin, should be put to the torture, in order to extort from them a confession as to what had become of the treasures: but Cortes could not make up his mind to insult so great a monarch as Quauhtemoctzin, whose territory more than trebled that of Spain, and that for mere lust after gold. Moreover, the monarch’s household assured us they had given up all the gold they possessed to the officers of the crown, which, it was well known, amounted to 380,000 pesos, the whole of which had been melted into bars; and one thing is certain, that the emperor’s and Cortes’ fifths were deducted from that sum; but the conquistadores were not at all satisfied, and considered this sum much below the real amount, and several expressed their suspicion to Alderete, the royal treasurer, that Cortes’ only reason for not wishing to put the monarch to the torture was, that he might secretly take possession of all his riches. Cortes, not willing that such a suspicion should any longer he upon him, or that he should afterwards be called to an account on this score, at last consented that both should be put to the torture.


Detail view (click for the full image) of David Alfaro Siquieros‘s monumental 1950-51 mural, The Torment of Cuauhtemoc.

Boiling hot oil was then applied to their feet; upon which they confessed that, four days prior to Quauhtemoctzin’s capture, all the gold, with the cannon, crossbows, and muskets, which we had lost in the night of sorrows, when we retreated from Mexico, besides those which had been taken in Cortes’ last defeat on the causeway, had been thrown into the lake. A number of good swimmers were then sent to dive for the treasure in the spot they pointed out, but nothing was found. Yet there was some truth in the statement; for I was myself present when Quauhtemoctzin led us to a large and deep reservoir of water, built of stone, which lay near his palace. From this reservoir we fished up a sun of gold similar to the one sent us by Motecusuma, besides many jewels and other trinkets, though all of little value. The king of Tlacupa also informed us that he had hidden all manner of valuable things in some large houses, about twelve miles from Tlacupa, and he would accompany us there to point out the spot where he had buried them.

Alvarado was then despatched thither with six soldiers, among which number I also was; but when we arrived at the spot, this king assured us he had merely invented all this in the hopes that we would have killed him in a moment of anger at our disappointment.

(Diaz later added that “the suspicion was become pretty general that he [Cortes] had concealed the greater part of Quauhtemoctzin’s treasure,” and indeed some disgruntled companions — unsatisfied with the share they had been allotted for so magnificent a conquest — would come to lodge this charge against Cortes formally with Emperor Charles V.)

Cortes eventually brought both these hostages/puppet kings/torture victims along with him on a 1524-1525 expedition to Honduras, perhaps to deprive them of any opportunity to rebel in his absence.

On the evening of February 27, Cortes received a report or a rumor that the Indian kings had rebellion on their mind just the same. The timetable from this report to execution is uncertain from the records, but if it was not within 24 hours it cannot have been much longer. Diaz, a hostile-to-Cortes witness here whose narrative indicates his dismay at proceedings, describes it thus:

I have now to relate a circumstance of a very different nature, which occasioned much grief to us all. Quauhtemoctzin and other Mexican chiefs who accompanied our army had, it would appear, spoken among themselves, or secretly determined to put the whole of us to death, then march back to Mexico, and assemble the whole armed power of the country against the few remaining Spaniards, and raise an insurrection throughout the whole of New Spain. This circumstance was discovered to Cortes by two distinguished Mexican chiefs, one of whom was named Tapia, and the other Juan Velasquez. This latter personage had been Quauhtemoctzin’s captain-general during our war with Mexico, and his testimony was borne out by the investigation which Cortes made into the matter, and by the confession of several of the caziques themselves who were implicated in the conspiracy. These men fearlessly declared, that seeing how carelessly and dispiritedly we roamed about; that numbers of the men were ill from want of food; that four of our musicians, with the buffoon and five soldiers, had died of hunger; and that three other men had turned back, more willing to run the risk of reaching Mexico again than of moving forward, the thought struck them that they could not do better than fall suddenly upon us while we were crossing some river or marsh, particularly as they were upwards of 3000 in number, all armed with lances, and several of them with swords. Quauhtemoctzin did not hesitate to acknowledge that these men had spoken the truth, but added that the conspiracy did not emanate with him, and that he himself had never for a moment contemplated carrying it into effect, but had merely spoken about it with the other caziques. All the cazique of Tlacupa confessed was, his having declared to Quauhtemoctzin that it was better to die at once than daily to have death before their eyes on these fatiguing marches, and see their countrymen and relations perish with hunger.

These were sufficient proofs for Cortes, and without any further ceremony he sentenced Quauhtemoctzin and his cousin the king of Tlacupa to the gallows. Before, however, this sentence was executed, the Franciscan monks, with the assistance of Dona Marina, strove to comfort these unfortunate men, and commended their souls to God. When they were being led to the place of execution, Quauhtemoctzin turned to Cortes, and said: “Oh Malinche! I have for a long time perceived, from your false words, that you had destined me for such a death, because I did not lay violent hands on myself when you entered my city of Mexico! Why are you thus going to put me unjustly to death? God will one time ask this of you!”

The king of Tlacupa said, he could only rejoice in a death which he would be permitted to suffer with his monarch Quauhtemoctzin.

Previous to their being hung, both these unhappy caziques confessed to father Juan, who understood the Mexican language, and they begged of him to commend their souls to God. For Indians they were good Christians, and they died in the true faith, and fully believed in our holy religion.

The death of these two monarchs grieved me excessively, for I had known them in all their glory, and on our march they honoured me with their friendship, and showed me many little attentions; for instance, they would often order their servants to go in quest of fodder for my horse; besides which, they were innocent of the guilt imputed to them, and it was the opinion of all who accompanied this expedition that they were put to death unjustly.

But I will leave this miserable subject, and return to our march, on which we henceforth observed the utmost vigilance, for we greatly feared the Mexicans might rise up in arms against us, after they had thus beheld their monarch ignominiously hung by the neck from a tree. But hunger, fatigue, and sickness weighed heavier upon their minds than the misfortune of Quauhtemoctzin.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the “rebel” kings hanged from a tree.

Gomara and, of course, Cortes characterize the accusations against the Indian kings as true and the proceedings against them lawful. From the footnotes in this same Bernal Diaz volume, we have this from the later Jesuit historian and ethnographer Juan de Torquemada, who was fluent in Nahuatl:

I find it differently represented in a history written in the Mexican language, and which I believe to be perfectly correct. While Cortes (the Mexican author says) was quartered in a certain township, the Mexican chiefs one evening began to discourse among themselves about the recent hardships they had suffered, and Cohuanacotzin said to Quauhtemoctzin, to Tetlepanquetzaltzin, and to other distinguished Mexicans, ‘Thus you see, gentlemen, from kings we are become slaves, and we suffer ourselves to be led about by Cortes and this handful of Christians. If we were other people than we are, and would break through the promise we have made these Spaniards, we could play them a pretty trick here, and revenge ourselves upon them for all they have done to us, and the ill-treatment my cousin Quauhtemoctzin has suffered at their hands.’ To this the Mexican monarch replied, ‘I beg of you Cohuanacotzin to drop this subject, lest some one should overhear us, and imagine we were in earnest.’ It appears (continues Torquemada) that they were indeed overheard, for the whole of this discourse was reported to Cortes by a low-minded Mexican of the lower classes.

By law, Mexican flags fly at half-staff in his honor on February 28.

* These texts are cited throughout the post, but for ease of reference … Bernal Diaz: Memoirs of the Conquistador Bernal Diaz del Castillo, vol. 1, vol. 2 | Gomara: The Pleasant Historie of the Conquest of the West India; now called New Spaine | Cortes: History of New Spain, which is a Spanish text as I could not locate an English translation. However, even the Anglophone is liable to appreciate (from p. 225) the illustrations of Indian material culture observed by the Spaniards.

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1785: Horea and Closca, Transylvanian rebels

Add comment February 28th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1785, two of the three leaders of Transylvania’s great peasant uprising were broken on the wheel in the city of Alba Iulia — the third having cheated the executioner by hanging himself in his cell.


Left to right: Vasile Ursu Nicola, known as Horea; Ion Oarga (Closca); and, the suicide, Marcu Giurgiu (Crisan).

The Revolt of Horea, Closca and Crisan (English Wikipedia entry | the far more detailed Romanian) featured the usual grievances of feudal serfs, who in this case were Orthodox Christians governed by a Hungarian Catholic nobility. The heavier exactions of the region’s magnates in this period had led to several peasant delegations petitioning for relief from the Habsburg crown, among whose rosters appear this day’s eventual executees, Horea and Closca.

Those grievances were transmuted into rebellion, paradoxically as it might seem, by the 1780 death of Maria Theresa and the consequent ascent to sole rulership of Emperor Joseph II. Remembered as one of history’s great progressive “enlightened despots,” Joseph would surely have thought himself a friend to the peasantry with measures like rolling back serfdom and a broadened mandate for education.*

But the careless injuries his modernizing edicts visited on a precarious dominion of his polyglot empire would help beat ploughshares into swords in the regions of present-day Romania.

Imperial demands for fresh (rationalized, as the empire saw it) cash taxation had excited the countryside’s nobility and peasantry alike, since little specie flowed through their traditional agrarian arrangements, and an attempted census had met widespread resistance as a likely harbinger of the revenue man; but, these rebels from the soil still mostly hated their traditional local overlords and in due course would direct their blades and torches accordingly. Demands they presented to a besieged city on November 11 of 1784 underscore their perspective:

  1. The nobility should be abolished; each noblemen, if he could get a job in the imperial administration, should live on that income.
  2. The noble landlords should leave once for all their nobiliary estates.
  3. The noblemen should pay taxes like any common taxpayer.
  4. The noblemen’s estates should be divided among the common people

-Source

The most immediate spark to set all this tinder ablaze would be the apparent prospect of widespread military recruitment — a desideratum for the peasantry, as it offered the prospect of social mobility and an escape from the magnate’s lash — which was then apparently withdrawn or blocked, a cruel trick to put the servile class in mind of its many abuses. In early November, beginning in Zarand, thousands of peasants Romanian, Saxon, and Hungarian alike rose in arms and began putting manors and churches to the sack.

“Letters from Transylvania continue to talk of excesses committed by rebels there,” one bulletin reported.

Not content to kill the feudal lords, they set fire to the habitations of their vassals if these refuse to embrace the party of the insurgents. At Kerespaya they broke into the coffers of the royal treasury and took away all the money. The evangelical pastor of that place, after having seen the throats of his wife and children cut, was taken to the church and decapitated at the foot of the altar. Some Franciscans met the same fate, those who had taken refuge in the bell towers were strangled and thrown into the streets. But they respect the officials of the emperor, as long as they are not nobles … Major Schultz asked one of them the motives for their cruel conduct, he answered: “Do not believe, Sir, that we have joined this party without reason; we were forced into it by the most pressing necessity. Here are authentic copies of several royal orders given out for our benefit that have not been carried out. All our remonstrances in this matter have been useless, and we have been sent away without receiving justice. It is thus only to break the yoke of the most insufferable slavery that we have resolved to vindicate ourselves. We know well that our conduct will be disapproved of, but we pride ourselves at the same time that it will serve to force examination of the conduct of those who have so cruelly deceived us. At any event, we prefer death to a miserable life, and will die content so that our example might guarantee the rights of humanity to our descendants and give the state contented subjects.”

-Nuove di diverse corti e paesi, Dec. 27, 1784 (quoted by Franco Venturi)

The tragic aspirations of this rebellion — which lasted only two months, but had managed to assume a proto-national character** — were amply fulfilled once it was crushed and its three principal leaders betrayed to the government. The two who faced the horrors of the breaking-wheel, and Crisan as well, had their corpses quartered and their limbs distributed to the major thoroughfares by way of intimidation. Dozens of others of less eternal fame were also put to death during this period, to add to the innumerable killings in the course of suppressing the rebels.†


Above: detail view (click for the full image) of an 18th century print illustrating the execution. Below: another take on the scene.

But there was, too, that examination they desired forced upon the emperor, who promulgated a decree abolishing serfdom in 1785, eliminated noble control over marriages, and expanded the peasantry’s grazing rights. These reforms were at best only partially successful (the true end of serfdom still lay decades in the future) but they betokened on parchment just as the rebels had done in fire and blood the crisis striking at the ancien regime — for, alongside condemnations of the peasantry, there were during those revolutionary years also vindications of them, written in the language of the Enlightenment:

The Walachian uprising is an important lesson for sovereigns. It confirms the observation that the human spirit is mature for a general ferment, that it yearns for laws that respect equality, justice, and the order corresponding to its nature. How could it have been that under the most beneficent and mild government in the world, that of Joseph II, such an event could occur? It is because the principles of liberty, justice, and equality are woven into our hearts; they are a part of our natural destiny.

-Wilhelm Ludwig Wekhrlin

* Joseph also abolished the death penalty in 1787. (He died in 1790, and the abolition with him.)

** And even more so in hindsight; see, for instance, this 1937 tributary obelisk.

† “I will leave you to judge the excesses they committed. Among others twenty-seven peasants were arrested, whose heads were cut off by nobles in one day without any kind of procedure.” One reported decree — we hope never effected in reality — threatened to impale a random citizen of any town that gave sanctuary to the “villainous low people.” (Both nuggets from Venturi, op. cit.)

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1975: The Gold Bar Murderers

Add comment February 28th, 2016 Headsman

On the last day of February in 1975, seven men from among a gang who authored one of Singapore’s signature murders were hanged at Changi Prison.


(cc) image from Bullion Vault.

Four days after Christmas in 1971, the phone rang for Andrew Chou, an Air Vietnam staffer who had been exploiting his security credentials to smuggle gold bars out of Singapore for several crime syndicates.

It was a fresh delivery for the Kee Guan Import-Export Co. for that evening — to be dropped at Chou’s house as usual.

Chou’s cut of these runs was lucrative, of course: hundreds of thousands in cash, out of which the able crook paid off his own muscle as well as the air crew.

But this night, he intended to take a lump sum.

As the couriers counted out the treasure at Chou’s kitchen table, Chou and associates attacked them. Later, Chou would phone his contacts to advise that the goldmen had never arrived that night: in fact, Ngo Cheng Poh, Leong Chin Woo and Ang Boon Chai had been consigned to the industrial muck of a convenient mining pool.

This incident, soon to be known as the Gold Bar Murders, went wrong very quickly but perhaps the judicial punishment visited on its perpetrators only spared them from a similar underworld revenge. An anonymous tipster had seen the bodies being dumped and police pulled them out of the ooze the next day. The smuggling-murder circle was busted immediately; a few gold bars were recovered from the office of Chou’s brother Davis, and the balance from an associate named Catherine Ang, who had received them for safekeeping from the hands of the killers.

There were 10 in this conspiracy. One, Augustine Ang,* saved his own life by giving evidence against his comrades. Two others, Ringo Lee and Stephen Lee, were minors at the time of the murder and escaped the noose on that basis.

The remaining seven — Andrew Chou, David Chou, Peter Lim, Alex Yau, Richard James, Stephen Francis, and Konesekaran Nagalingam — all hanged without their appeals availing any of them the least whiff of judicial or executive mercy.

* There was no blood relationship between the murderer Augustine Ang, the victim Ang Boon Chai, and the fence Catherine Ang.

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628: Khosrau II, Sassanid emperor

Add comment February 28th, 2015 Headsman

On this date (or very close to it) in 628, the Persian emperor Khosrau* II was put to death by the order of his son and usurper.

Chip off the old block, that boy, since he was taking power the same way as Khosrau himself had done way back in 590. But with the old man’s fall, the Sassanid Empire entered its death spiral: by 651, it would be overwhelmed by the armies of Islam.

Little could the younger Khosrau have conceived of his glorious Persian state laid low by these desert zealots! Persia’s last great pre-Muslim empire flourished in Khosrau’s heyday.

Briefly deposed in his youth, Khosrau reinstated himself with the aid of the Byzantines — ironic aid, in retrospect. After his Constantinople angel Emperor Maurice was deposed and slain in 602, Khosrau availed the pretext of vengeance to make war on Byzantium.

The season of this war would span the entire quarter-century to Khosrau’s own death — and would initially redound to Khosrau’s glory. Byzantium foundered in civil war, coming near the brink of outright destruction under continuous Persian pummeling. Khosrau’s top general Shahrbaraz won a crushing victory in 614, capturing Jerusalem where they carried off thousands of prisoners, the city’s patriarch, and the True Cross. In the years to follow, Persia conquered Egypt and pressed so deep into Anatolia that the Byzantines are said to have considered evacuating the capital to Carthage. Khosrau aspired, wrote Theophanes the Confessor more than a century later, “to seize the Roman Empire completely.”

The fall of the Sassanids, and Khosrau, from this apex was precipitous and entire.

The Byzantines under Heraclius rallied dramatically and in the winter of 627-628 carried Roman arms to the city of Dastagerd, just a short march from the Sassanid capital Ctesiphon. The intrepidity of the counterattack threw the Sassanids into a commotion; Khosrau disgracefully fled Ctesiphon, and in the power vacuum that followed, his heir Kavadh seized power. A usurper cannot afford to found his authority on sentiment; Kavadh not only had his father executed — allegedly by being shot slowly with arrows — but he ordered the deaths of all his half-brothers to extinguish as many future rivals as possible.

The precautions did not grant Kavadh a long reign: he died of the plague later that same year, beginning a dismal progression of feeble claimants overthrowing one another. The Arabs overran Ctesiphon by 636, leaving the rump of the Sassanid state shrinking towards nothingness, and its last emperor to be ignominiously slain by a miller.

Dig into the seventh century Byzantine-Persian frontier during gym time with an ample selection of audio product:

  • The History of Byzantium podcast has treated this period in some detail: for Byzantium, it was a dramatic phoenix-from-the-ashes story, and the running war with Persia is one of its principal themes. Try episodes 44, 45, and 46
  • The (defunct, but still available) Twelve Byzantine Rulers podcast has a snappy episode on Khosrau’s Byzantine opposite number, Heraclius
  • The BBC In Our Time podcast has an enjoyable 2011 episode on the Sassanids available here.

* Also rendered Chosrou or Chosroes, among many others.

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1800: Roddy McCorley, at Toomebridge

Add comment February 28th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1800, Rodaí Mac Corlaí — with due apologies for the imperial encroachment, we’re going to roll with the Anglicized “Roddy McCorley” — was hanged “near the Bridge of Toome” in Ireland

McCorley‘s death date — it was reported in the Belfast Newsletter — seems to be one of the few reliably documented facts about the man.* (See this forum thread for debate on the various nth-hand oral tradition)

He’s remembered as a rebel of 1798.

The actual nature and extent of his involvement in that rebellion is totally undocumented, but that doesn’t mean it’s not celebrated in an oft-covered patriotic song.

Post-rebellion, the (probably) Presbyterian McCorley was part of the so-called “Archer Gang”, men whom that newspaper account of McCorley’s execution calls “nefarious wretches who have kept this neighbourhood in the greatest misery for some time past.” That’s a hostile witness, obviously; the band in question looks to be Irish rebels turned outlaws, for whom plunder on the roads and vengeance on the rebellion’s enemies neatly coincided.

That coterie was gradually rounded up; its leader Tam Archer would also hang. But the national cause ran in the McCorley blood: the hanged man’s great-grandson Roger McCorley was a Republican insurgent during the Irish War of Independence in the early 1920s.

Thanks to @elongreen for bringing Roddy McCorley to our attention.

* Although even the execution date has been blurred by a later, martyr-making tradition claiming that McCorley died on Good Friday. He did not.

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1946: Bela Imredy, Hungarian fascist prime minister

1 comment February 28th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1946, Bela Imredy, the fascist former prime minister of Hungary, was shot in Budapest.

Imredy was a Catholic financier who steered Hungarian economic policy in a succession of state posts during the chaotic 1930s.

When one of those governments fell in 1938, regent Miklos Horthy appointed Imredy prime minister. He was forced out of office the next year on revelations that he had Jewish ancestry.

This did nothing to moderate Imredy’s anti-Semitic views; he returned at the head of a new fascist party and nearly became Prime Minister under the German occupation in 1944.

Horthy demurred, and another future gallows-bird got the job instead. Imredy took the Minister of Economic Coordination as his last political gig.

A “People’s Tribunal” condemned Imredy after the war for war crimes and Nazi collaboration.

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1476: The Garrison of Grandson, by Charles the Bold

2 comments February 28th, 2012 Headsman

On this day in 1476, the 412-strong garrison of Grandson, Switzerland surrendered to Charles the Bold during the Burgundian Wars … and was executed en masse by hanging and drowning.

Detail view (click for the full image) of a mounted Charles the Bold under a forest of hanged men.

Charles — less generously known as “Charles the Rash” or “Charles the Terrible” — was the Duke of Burgundy, an ancient territory whose warlike inhabitants were celebrated back to The Nibelungenlied

Upon his single person the sword-strokes fell thick and fast. The wife of many a hero must later mourn for this. Higher he raised his shield, the thong he lowered; the rings of many an armor he made to drip with blood … Then men saw the warrior walk forth in full lordly wise. As the strife-weary man sprang from the house, how many added swords rang on his helmet! Those that had not seen what wonders his hand had wrought sprang towards the hero of the Burgundian land. (XXXII)

In the 15th century, the swords ringing on Burgundian helmets were those of the French and the Habsburgs, who squeezed the mighty duchy on either side.

Charles the Bold fought the expansionist Burgundian Wars as a project to strengthen his duchy’s independence. But it would have the exact opposite effect.

The Swiss had been pulled into the anti-Burgundian league, and taken the city of Grandson, inducing an irritated Charles to put it to a fearful bombardment that threatened to overrun the place in short order.

Sources vary by partisan affiliation as to whether the besieged garrison surrendered at its antagonist’s discretion (Burgundian version) or on a pledge of mercy (Swiss version). But in the actual event, no mercy at all was given. To a man, the prisoners were strung up on trees and drowned in the adjacent Lake of Neuchatel — a warning to the Swiss not to mess with Burgundy.

It was bluster that Charles’s men could not back up when their opponents fought back … and after this, who was going to surrender?

A couple days later, the Swiss relief force arrived too late to bail out the garrison. Instead, it trounced the Burgundians in battle, sending them fleeing “without looking back, helter-skelter” as Charles, “exasperated beyond measure by the stupid cowardice of his troops, rode amongst them with drawn sword, striking them furiously, in the vain effort to bring them to a standstill.”

The victorious Swiss made off with a fantastic booty from the abandoned Burgundian camp, but also recovered a more dolorous prize.

There were found sadly the honorable men still freshly hanging on the trees in front of the castle whom the tyrant had hanged. It was a wretched, pitiable sight. There were hung ten or twenty men on one bough. The trees were bent down and were completely full. There hanged a father and a son next to each other, there two brothers or other friends. And there came the honorable men who knew them; who were their friends, cousins and brothers, who found them miserably hanging. There was first anger and distress in crying and bewailing.

Charles was plenty distressed himself at his embarrassing reversal, and boldly (or rashly) regrouped, marched on the Swiss again — and had Burgundian power decisively shattered at the Battle of Murten that June. The following January, a dispirited Charles died in another losing battle, leading the once-imperious realm of Burgundy to settle into French hands, where it remains today.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burgundy,Drowned,Execution,France,Gibbeted,Hanged,History,Known But To God,Mass Executions,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Switzerland,Wartime Executions

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1810: Tommaso Tintori, the first guillotined in Rome

3 comments February 28th, 2010 Headsman

It’s easy enough to accuse the Catholic Church of being behind the times.

But this date two hundred years ago found it in the criminological progressive vanguard (just ask Lord Byron!), conducting Rome’s first beheading by guillotine, that brave new instrument of egalitarian execution.

Okay, granted: it wasn’t the ecclesiastical authorities but the French occupiers who introduced the guillotine, as was their wont.

But when the Papal States were restored a few years later, after the Napoleonic Wars, the vicars of Christ were enlightened enough to keep this efficient device (and its sunk capital cost) around … at least as one option among the restored traditional sentences of hanging, quartering, and the local specialty, mazzolatura.

Biographical details of our milestone criminal are scarce on the ground, but we have his name, date of execution, and crime — omicidio — courtesy of the Italian list kept by the famed executioner Mastro Titta.

Seguono Le Giustizie Eseguite Nel Nuovo Edifizio Per Il Taglio Della Testa Nel Governo Francese.

106. Tommaso Tintori, reo di omicidio, li 28 febbraio 1810.

As one might guess, that “106” means that the prolific Titta had already notched 105 official kills in his 14 years as executioner prior to the guillotine. He would run his career total north of 500.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Italy,Milestones,Murder,Notable Participants,Occupation and Colonialism,Papal States,Public Executions

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1887: Roxalana Druse, the last woman hanged in New York

6 comments February 28th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1887, 40-year-old Roxalana Druse was hanged in Herkimer, N.Y.

Ms. Druse and her daughter* had slain, chopped to pieces and destroyed the remains of Roxalana’s 72-year-old husband William.

Attention to her case ran toward the hyperbolic.


Detail of image courtesy of Special Collections Department, Harvard Law School.

As Roxalana Druse’s fatal date approached, said the Saturday Globe (an early national paper here mining the product-moving public fascination with mayhem we have noted across the pond), “she has dwindled to a mere shadow of her former self and would hardly tip the scales at 85 pounds.”

Still, this infamous-at-the-time crime would be little more than a piece of period folklore were it not for the horrible end Druse suffered.

Shrieking with terror as she was hooded (so says the New York Times account, which also reports that she deferred her last statement to her Universalist spiritual counselor, who made a general denunciation of the death penalty), Roxalana Druse was hanged on an upward-jerking gallows — and the rope reportedly failed to snap her neck, leaving her to slowly strangle to death.

This botched job in a high-profile hanging intensified pressure on the New York legislature to do away with the gallows; the next year, it became the first jurisdiction in the world to adopt electrocution for death sentences.

And Roxalana? She’s preserved in local lore in Herkimer, where she is said to haunt the courthouse where she heard her sentence.

* Roxalana Druse insisted that her teenage daughter Mary had nothing to do with it. Mary received a prison sentence, and was pardoned in 1895.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Milestones,Murder,New York,The Supernatural,USA,Women

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