1939: Maurice Pilorge, Le Condamné à mort

1 comment February 4th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, the murderer Maurice Pilorge dropped his beautiful head under the blade.

This strange execution by retrospect almost marks the pivot between eras of crime and culture. Public executions were about to disappear entirely; the Third Republic that ordered them would not long outlive them.

And Pilorge’s death specifically would prove to be the last performance of the guillotine in Rennes. It was also to have been the 396th in the legendary career of 75-year-old headsman Anatole Deibler … except that Deibler dropped dead on a Paris metro platform two days before, as he set out for the lethal rendezvous.

So too did Pilorge’s crime belong to that interwar moment of cosmopolitan decadence. He fatally slashed the throat of a Mexican visitor named Escudero after what Pilorge claimed, in an unsuccessful attempt to leverage the “gay panic” defense, was an indecent proposition. The facts of the case appear better to fit the hypothesis that indecent propositions were Pilorge’s stock in trade: a black book full of dates and initials whose owners he would not identify, a short late-night visit to Escudero’s hotel room, and a total refusal to explain his activities.

Pilorge, who maintained a wry and mirthful attitude throughout his trial, could not but laugh at the judge’s speculation — inspired by the swarthiness of his victim in the case at hand? — that his prisoner was involved in traite des blanches, the white slave trade: “I was never cut out for that. I assure you that I have never fallen so low.”

If Pilorge’s character entered the public gaze awash in same-sex eros, he was fixed in the firmament as such by the pen of Villonesque criminal/writer Jean Genet after the war years.

Claiming (falsely) to have had a prison intimacy with this doomed “Apollo”, Genet dedicated to Pilorge, “assasin de vingt ans,” one of his breakthrough works. Written in prison in 1942, Le Condamné à mort is a homoerotic hallucination of lovemaking ahead of a gathering doom and it helped to launch the theretofore Genet into literary superstardom. I’ve found the lengthy poem available online only in the original French, but here’s a translated excerpt via The Columbia Anthology of Gay Literature:

O come my beautiful sun, o come my night of Spain,
Arrive in my eyes which will be dead tomorrow.
Arrive, open my door, bring me your hand,
Lead me far from here to scour the battleground.

Heaven may awaken, the stars may blossom,
Nor flowers sigh, and from the meadows the black grass
Gather the dew where morning is about to drink,
The bell may ring: I alone am about to die.

O come my heaven of rose, o my blond basket!
Visit in his night your condemned-to-death.
Tear away your own flesh, kill, climb, bite,
But come! Place your cheek against my round head.

We had not finished speaking to each other of love.
We had not finished smoking our gitanes.
Well we might ask why the Courts condemn
A murderer so beautiful he makes the day to pale.

Love come to my mouth! Love open your doors!
Run through the hallways, come down, step lightly,
Fly down the stairs more supple than a shepherd,
More borne up by the air than a flight of dead leaves.

O cross the walls; so it must be walk on the brink
Of roofs, of oceans; cover yourself with light,
Use menace, use prayer,
But come, o my frigate, an hour before my death.

The poem was one of several that Genet wrote later set to music by herhis friend, Helene Martin. (It’s also been covered and reinterpreted by several others.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Homosexuals,Murder,Pelf

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1784: James Andrews, the last to hang in the Grassmarket

Add comment February 4th, 2016 Headsman

This date in 1784 was the last occasion Edinburgh’s Grassmarket hosted a public execution.

One of 15 marketplaces in Edinburgh by 15th century royal decree, the Grassmarket was then and remains today a rectangular plaza flattened between the imposing Edinburgh Castle to the north, and George Heriot’s School for orphans to the south.


Edinburgh Castle seen from the western edge of the Grassmarket.
(cc) image from Jan Brünemann.

(In 1783, teenage outlaw James Hay had managed to escape from prison shortly before his hanging and hide out in the environs of Heriot’s school — of which he was an alumnus. Puckish schoolboys secretly brought morsels to their fugitive chum for six weeks, until the heat had died down enough for Hay to successfully escape Scotland.)

For more than a century, since the Restoration, the Grassmarket’s east end had doubled as a public execution theater — although other executions also continued to take place at different Edinburgh venues such as Mercat Cross. But the Grassmarket came online for the gallows just in time to lodge that site in the nation’s memory for martyring an hundred or more Covenanters during the Killing Time. The Duke of Rothes would crack of one such believer who preferred death to reconciliation, “Then let him glorify God in the Grassmarket.” Many did so.


Covenanters Memorial at the onetime site of the Grassmarket’s gallows. (cc) image from Kim Traynor. Just to the right (north) of this view one would find overlooking the memorial the pub named for Half-Hangit Maggie Dickson, who survived her execution in the Grassmarket in 1724.

To these souls of these saints was attached a more profane passion in 1736 when a mob incited by an unjust execution rampaged through the Grassmarket and lynched the captain of the city guard who fired on the populace — the real-life events recalled in Walter Scott’s The Heart of Midlothian.

As was the case with London’s nearly simultaneous retirement of the Tyburn tree, the milestone occasion dignified the sufferer far more than the other way around. James Andrews was a forgettable minor criminal who hanged for a robbery in the Meadows.

The city’s next execution was fully 14 months later. It took place outside the western facade of the Tolbooth prison, which now took over from the Grassmarket as Edinburgh’s definitive public execution site.

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Entry Filed under: Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Scotland,Theft

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2015: Sajida al-Rishawi and Ziyad Karboli, Jordan’s revenge on ISIS

Add comment February 4th, 2015 Headsman

This morning at Swaqa prison south of Amman, Jordan executed two operatives of al-Qaida in Iraq in retaliation against ISIS for the murder of a captured Jordanian pilot.

ISIS yesterday posted a video showing a caged and gasoline-drenched Lt. Muath al-Kaseasbeh shrieking as flames devour him. The slickly produced 22-minute piece with the stomach-turning climax can be found online here, but don’t say we didn’t warn you. It’s nightmarish.

The unfortunate pilot had been used as a prop in ISIS’s provocative hostage diplomacy along with the Japanese captive Kenji Goto, who were both offered in exchange for Sajida al-Rishawi, a terrorist already on Jordan’s death row Jordan’s death row who had been widely forgotten. Video of Goto’s beheading came out several days ago.

Jordan last week agreed to trade al-Rishawi, if ISIS could prove that al-Kaseasbeh was still alive. Jordanian television has reported that the almost jeering video reply was actually filmed on January 3, indicating that the “hostage” negotiations had been a sham all along. (And/or deflecting some of the public anger away from the government; initial reports today had some crowds chanting against Jordan’s King Abdullah, who hastened home from meetings in Washington, D.C. after news of Lt. al-Kaseasbeh’s fate surfaced.)

Al-Rishawi, an Iraqi woman condemned to death in 2005 for taking part in a suicide bombing,* was promptly hanged in revenge by an enraged Jordan. Her crime predated ISIS, of course, but here’s guessing it was a public relations maneuver for the Islamist quasi-state to involve the al-Rishawi gratuitously and invite Jordan to martyr a female prisoner who turned terrorist after she lost a husband and three brothers killed fighting American troops.


Sajida al-Rishawi

Jordan has vowed an “earth-shaking response” extending far beyond hanging al-Rishawi and Ziyad Karboli, another al-Qaida in Iraq prisoner who was also executed.

“While the military forces mourn the martyr, they emphasize his blood will not be shed in vain. Our punishment and revenge will be as huge as the loss of the Jordanians,” a spokesman said in a prepared statement today.

“My son’s blood is worth more than those two,” Lt. al-Kaseasbeh’s father agreed — adding that Jordan’s true revenge must be “to destroy this terrorist group.”

* Her explosive vest failed to detonate, but the attack killed 57. Despite the notoriety of the bombing, al-Rishawi was understood as a small-timer by Jordanians who widely favored setting her free if that could actually secure the release of the lieutenant.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Caliphate,Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,ISIS/ISIL,Jordan,Ripped from the Headlines,Terrorists,Wartime Executions,Women

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1653: Jasper Hanebuth, robber and murderer

Add comment February 4th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1653, the German bandit Jasper Hanebuth was broken on the wheel in Hanover.

An illiterate farmer’s son from Groß-Buchholz, Hanebuth came of age during the calamitous Thirty Years’ War and thereby made his bread for a time as one of the numberless strong arms enlisted to let out one another’s blood.

Hanebuth is the titular villain in the German historical fiction novel The Murderer’s Concubine.

In a time of crisscrossing armies with conflicting loyalties and uncertain pay, it was a fine line between soldiers and thieves — sometimes just the hour of the day. What matter to a rural family or a vulnerable traveler if the gang of armed men who dispossessed him did so under the banner of God or that of opportunism? And given means and opportunity, what matter to the armed gang itself? Victims in such a chaotic environment, either actual or potential, were liable in their own turn to resort to brigandage as the only viable option, paying the devastation forward.

“It defies the pen to recount all the miseries and horrors” from those years of pillage and rapine, wrote August Jugler in his history of Hanover.

True to the template, Hanebuth parlayed wartime soldiery into an alarmingly bold career of opportunistic robbery in the still-extant Eilenriede. A purported “Hanebuth’s Block” in the vicinity of the present-day zoo there long preserved the association; there’s still a street in the forest known as Hanebuthwinkel.

He was reputed an especially vicious outlaw, who would raid singly as well as jointly with other farmers and decommissioned warriors, and would as readily for sport or pleasure shoot a convenient target dead before bothering to approach and find out if the business end of the felony was even worth the murder. He ultimately confessed to 19 homicides.

But it was still the pecuniary motive that drove things. Hanebuth approached crime-lord status with secret smuggling tunnels allegedly set up to move his ill-gotten gains and regular traffic with Hanover merchants. Hanebuth also set up as a horse-trader, exploiting his predilection for violence to obtain stock by force. One trader who refused a shakedown simply had his horses outright stolen the next night, and this man at last reported Hanebuth, resulting in his arrest, torture, and execution on the wheel.

He remains one of Hanover’s most iconic historical criminals.


Jacques Collot’s 1633 cycle “The Miseries of War” might have foretold Hanebuth’s fate: here, a soldier of the Thirty Years’ War who has turned to robbery is punished, as Hanebuth would be, on the wheel. The caption explains:

The ever-watching eye of the divine Astrée [Justice]
Banishes entirely the mourning from the country
When holding the sword and scales in her hands
She judges and punishes the inhuman thief
Who awaits passersby, hurts them, and plays with them
[And] then becomes himself the plaything of a wheel.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,History,Murder,Outlaws,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Soldiers,Theft,Torture

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1940: Nikolai Yezhov, terror namesake

5 comments February 4th, 2012 Headsman

In the terrible years of the Yezhovshchina, I spent seventeen months in lines outside the prison in Leningrad [queuing to deliver food to or get news of imprisoned loved ones: in her case, her son Lev]. One day somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):
‘And can you describe this?’
And I said: ‘I can.’
Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

-Poet Anna Akhmatova

On this date in 1940, the first name in Stalin’s terror got his just deserts.

Well. The first name after Stalin’s own, a point energetically made by Nikolai Yezhov’s daughter* in her fruitless post-Soviet attempts to rehabilitate the man.

But clearing a fellow’s name is a tough task when that name is the mother tongue’s very metonym for political persecution: the Soviet Union’s mind-bending late-1930s witch hunt for internal enemies, known as the Yezhovshchina.

From late 1936, when he eliminated his predecessor Genrikh Yagoda (later executed, of course), until his own fall from power in at the end of 1938, Yezhov presided over the apex of Stalinist terror, averaging hundreds of political killings daily — perhaps north of 600,000 for the two-year period, plus a like number disappeared into the Gulag’s freezers. (Just browse this here site’s ‘1937’ tag for a taste.)

Departments and regions received quotas for executions as if they were tractor factories. Security officials well understood that their own heads would be next on the block for any perceived shortcoming; Yezhov had thousands of them arrested, too. (pdf)**

We are launching a major attack on the Enemy; let there be no resentment if we bump someone with an elbow. Better that ten innocent people should suffer than one spy get away. When you chop wood, chips fly.

-Yezhov

The “Bloody Dwarf” — surely there is some of Yezhov in the Master and Margarita character Azazello, the Satan/Stalin figure’s murderous and diminutive attendant — rode this tiger unto his own destruction.


Stalin and other Soviet VIPs with (front right) Nikolai Yezhov.

The same photo ‘updated’ after Yezhov’s fall. (For a similarly chilling photographic disappearance, see Vladimir Clementis.)

As Yezhov had once displaced and killed his mentor Yagoda, so Yezhov’s own nominal underling Beria would displace Yezhov.

Power in the NKVD shifted towards Beria over the course of 1938 until Yezhov’s own resignation that November. The former boss was quietly arrested the next April and barely troubled his skilled torturers before copping to the usual litany of official self-denunciations: corruption, economic sabotage and “wrecking”, treasonable collaboration with the Germans, plus a bisexual personal life. (That last one was true.)

Bound for historical infamy, Yezhov salvaged a shred of dignity in the last, when he was “tried” a few hours before death and renounced those confessions — albeit from the twisted standpoint of a man still unquestioningly committed to the man and the system that had destroyed him.

It is better to die, but to leave this earth as an honorable man and to tell nothing but the truth at the trial. At the preliminary investigation I said that I was not a spy, that I was not a terrorist, but they didn’t believe me and applied to me the strongest beating. During the 25 years of my party work I have fought honorably against enemies and have exterminated them. I have committed crimes for which I might well be executed … But those crimes which are imputed to me by the indictment in my case I did not commit …

My fate is obvious. My life, naturally, will not be spared since I myself have contributed to this at my preliminary investigation. I ask only one thing: shoot me quietly, without tortures …Tell Stalin that I shall die with his name on my lips.

And indeed, Yezhov knew from plenty of personal experience how this script ended. It was called the Yezhovshchina for a reason.

The judges pretended to deliberate for half an hour. Ezhov fainted at the verdict, then scrawled a petition for mecy; it was read out over the telephone to the Kremlin and rejected. Ezhov was taken in the dead of night to a slaughterhouse he himself had built near the Lubianka. Dragged screaming to a special room with a sloping cement floor and a log-lined wall, he was shot by the NKVD’s chief executioner, Vasili Blokhin. Beria gave Stalin a list of 346 of Ezhov’s associates to be shot. Sixty of them were NKVD officers, another fifty were relatives and sexual partners. (From Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him

* Natalia Khayutina is actually Yezhov’s adoptive daughter. Her birth parents were killed … in the Yezhovschina.

** “I purged 14,000 chekists,” Yezhov later said. “But my guilt lies in the fact that I did not purge enough of them.”

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Homosexuals,Infamous,Language,Politicians,Popular Culture,Power,Russia,Shot,The Worm Turns,Torture,USSR

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1529: Ludwig Haetzer, Anabaptist

Add comment February 4th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1529, Biblical translator Ludwig Hätzer (or Haetzer, or Hetzer) had his head lopped off with a sword in the town square Konstanz (Constance) where he had first been ordained a priest. The charge against him was adultery … but his real crime was his Protestant radicalism.

Haetzer, a Hebrew scholar, was of that first generation of church reformers who pushed dangerously beyond the reforms intended by more respectable types like Luther and Zwingli.

The latter actually took Haetzer under his wing in 1523 for his erudite denunciation of religious imagery, and tapped him to help translate the Old Testament.

But Haetzer started rolling with wilder-eyed types like Michael Sattler and getting thrown out of cities and the like. The young priest’s own thinking evolved over the 1520s towards a rejection of infant baptism, and sacraments, and marriage.

There was also a sect among them the members of which wished, together with all things else, to have their wives in common; but they were soon suppressed by the other Brethren of the community, and driven out. Many inculpated Hut and Hätzer as leaders of this sect. If this be true, these men at all events atoned for their sin.

According to Alcohol: A Social and Cultural History, Haetzer was even the first divine to publicly denounce boozing — in a German treatise available free online, On Evangelical Drinking.

He wasn’t opposed to all corporal diversions, however.

Protestant authorities in Constance arrested him for living in sin with Anna Regel.

After his execution for sexual impropriety, anti-Trinitarian writings were discovered and judiciously destroyed; this biography claims that some Unitarians view him as their proto-martyr.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Sex

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1703: 47 Ronin forced to commit seppuku

1 comment February 4th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1703, Japan’s most renowned epic of bushido vengeance reached its endgame with the condemned ronin who had avenged their executed master forced to commit seppuku.

So compelling an allegory of conflicting loyalties could hardly have been so skillfully constructed as outright fiction. The 47 Ronin owed personal fealty to a daimyo who drew his blade when provoked by the insolence of a shogunate official, and was condemned to death for the offense.

For the shogun, it was a just assertion of a central state’s prerogatives.

For the samurai made ronin by the death of their lord, it was a test of honor.

Knowing that the offending shogun retainer would be well-defended on the lookout against retribution, forty-seven of them (or possibly more at first; in any case, not the entirety of the samurai force) feigned dissipation and indifference for over a year … then raided his palace and slew him once he dropped his guard.

The ronin were condemned to death, but authorities “allowed” them the more honorable route of seppuku — which they committed to a man.*

Theorists of bushido honor may dicker over whether this plot fulfilled the demands of honor, but less philosophically exacting interlocutors have made the tale among the most beloved in Japanese history — like these illustrations of a traditional adaptation, or several films.

Their graves can be honored by the discerning Tokyo visitor at the popular Sengakuji Temple.

* Actually only 46 of the 47; the other was sent as a messenger, or perhaps fled, but was otherwise separated from his party, and ended up spared.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Assassins,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Japan,Mass Executions,Murder,Myths,Popular Culture,Soldiers,Treason

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