1707: Baron Otto Arnold Peikel

1 comment February 4th, 2018 Headsman

A few line breaks have been removed for readability, and most of the author’s original footnotes excised, from this source text.

CHARLES XIIS TREATMENT OF
LIEUTENANT-GENERAL BARON PEIKEL.

By Charles Dalton, Esq.,
Editor of English Army Lists and Commission Registers, 1661-1714.

BARON PEIKEL (or Pykul) has been mistaken by several writers for his kinsman the better-known Count Patkul, the famous Livonian patriot, who was executed, after being mercilessly broken on the wheel, at a village near Casimir, in Great Poland, October 10th, 1707, by order of Charles XII. The confusion occasioned by the similarity in names may also be traced to the remarkable fact that both Peikel and Patkul held the rank of lieut.-general in the Polish Army; and the former succeeded the latter in command of the Saxon contingent which fought on the side of Augustus, King of Poland, against Charles XII. Fate decreed that both Peikel and Patkul should fall into the hands of the iron-hearted King of Sweden, and after a long imprisonment be executed within a few months of each other.

Here the parallel between these two Livonian patriots stops, as Peikel (English Wikipedia entry | Latvian) was neither a great commander nor a diplomatist, but he possessed one remarkable talent which alone makes him intrinsically interesting and worthy of a niche in the Temple of Fame. Baron Peikel claimed, and was allowed by impartial and trustworthy witnesses, to have discovered the secret of making gold!

The Province of Livonia [present-day Latvia and Estonia -ed.], which had been a bone of contention between the northern countries of Europe for centuries, was ceded by Poland to Sweden in 1660. The confiscation of Livonian estates, and the heavy taxes imposed by Charles XI, alienated the Livonian nobility and people from Sweden and Swedish rule.

The sympathies of the conquered province were with Poland, and thus it came to pass that when Russia and Poland engaged in war with Sweden, in 1700, some of the leading Livonian noblemen were found ranged against Charles XII, whose proclamation summoning them to return to their allegiance was treated with open defiance. Prominent among the Livonian revolters was Baron Peikel, who sided with Augustus II, King of Poland and Elector of Saxony.

Passing over the fluctuating fortunes of the Polish arms under Augustus the Strong (who was deposed in 1704, but re-elected some years later to the Polish Crown), we find that a battle was fought near Warsaw, in the summer of 1705, between the Saxons and Poles on one side, and the Swedes on the other. In this engagement the Saxons are said to have fought well, but not being supported by the Poles, who fled on the first discharge, had to retire. The loss on both sides was equal. General Bond (the Swedish commander) was killed, and Baron Peikel (the Saxon general) was taken prisoner. Peikel and several other Saxon officers taken on this occasion were sent to Stockholm, where they suffered a rigorous imprisonment.

In November, 1706, a treaty was concluded between Charles XII and Augustus II The cessation of hostilities only hastened Peikel’s doom. He was tried by the Advocate Fiscal in Stockholm as a traitor to his country, and being found guilty was sentenced to death. On the face of the evidence against Peikel, this sentence was doubtless a just one. But the prisoner had a strong argument in his favour against his condemnation, as appears from a contemporary MS.

Peikul (sic) happened to be born in Poland about three miles from the Livonian border, and this fact was used against him in a law-suit he had with an uncle for a considerable estate. After going through all the Livonian Courts it was, as is customary, brought to the King for decision, for to him is the last appeal in all civil causes. The King gave judgment against Peikul for this only reason because he was an alien and not his natural-born subject. However, this determination, unjust as it was, afterwards was brought as a good argument for Peikul against the King, when his Majesty condemned him as a natural-born subject of Sweden. But it seems, though his being born out of the King’s dominions proved a good reason for depriving him of his estate, it proved ineffectual to the saving of his life.

The sympathy of the Queen of Sweden (who was acting as Regent of the Kingdom during her grandson’s absence with the army), her ineffectual efforts to obtain a pardon for Peikel, the condemned nobleman’s extraordinary offers to the Queen and Senate for filling the Swedish Treasury, then at a very low ebb, provided his life were spared, and the remarkable proof he gave before witnesses of his ability to perform what he promised, are fully and graphically detailed by the British Envoy at Stockholm in his official letters to the Right Hon. Robert Harley, Secretary of State:

Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of Stale.
Stockholm, January 5th, 1707.

An order is now come from the King to suffer all the Saxon officers now prisoners in Sweden to go where they please, except one Lieutenant General Pykull (sic), a native of Liefland [Livonia], who was taken about two years ago in Poland, and in November last was condemned here as a traitor for serving against this Crown, which sentence the King not only lately confirmed, but gave also at the same time express order for his execution as on the 7th instant; but the Queen-Mother and all the Royal family here having interceded for him, and not yet got his Majesty’s answer, her Majesty has therefore by her own authority reprieved him for a month, yet it is thought his pardon will not be granted at last.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, January 30th, 1707.

The King has renewed his former orders for the execution of Lieutenant-General Pykull, not having thought fit to hearken to the Queen-Mother’s intercession on that gentleman’s behalf.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, February 9th, 1707.

The Saxon Lieutenant-General Peikel was beheaded on Monday last;* he chose to be executed with an axe (though it be esteemed very dishonourable in this country) rather than with a sword, by reason of the unskilfulness of the executioner. There was no other crime laid to his charge in the Fiscal’s accusation than that he, being a native of Liefland, presumed in disobedience to his Majesty’s avocatoria** to serve his enemy, wherefore it was thought here that the King’s neither hearkening to the many high intercessions made on his behalf, nor the advantageous proposals he made to save his life, proceeded from the knowledge his Majesty must have of some other crimes of a blacker nature.

But the morning Peikel suffered he told the divines which assisted him, and administered the Sacrament to him, that having heard of a report spread as if he had been one who had particularly encouraged King Augustus to begin this war, on the prospect of the Lieflanders, his countrymen, revolting from Sweden; and also of another that he had been engaged in a design upon the King of Sweden’s person, he therefore took that opportunity to declare in that solemn manner that all such reports were false, and that he never had acted anything against his Swedish Majesty’s person, or Kingdom, contrary to the principles of a man of honour. And since his one crime was that he was born in the Swedish dominions, he could not allow to have deserved death merely for that reason.

But he added that it having pleased God some time ago to bring him wonderfully to the knowledge of a great secret in Nature, whereby he could not only himself have lived in the greatest happiness, but likewise have been capable of doing much good in the world. Yet he nevertheless suffered his ambition to prevail against his reason, which led him to accept the command of those troops amongst which he was taken prisoner, and for that he said he had justly incurred the punishment which was to be inflicted on him.

The secret he speaks of was making gold to a prodigious advantage; and he actually gave such proofs to the archiater at the Court, as well as some other knowing persons, of his profound knowledge in chemistry, that nobody now doubts of his having been able to perform what he pretended, and also proposed in case the King would have given him his life; and for your Honour’s curiosity I shall presume in my next humble account to send your Honour an extract of the said proposals (whereby, if he could have fulfilled his promise, would have arose a yearly revenue of five hundred thousand ducats to this Crown), and also an authentic relation of an experiment of his having had that secret performed by the Advocate Fiscal, and one Colonel Hugo Hamilton, a native of Ireland, who is Commandant of this city, and had the custody of Monsr. Peikel during his imprisonment, which papers being but lately come to my hands I have not yet had time to translate them.


Mr. Robert Jackson to the Secretary of State.
Stockholm, February 16th, 1707.

Having in my last presumed to mention several things relating to the lately executed Baron Peikel, I therefore now further presume to transmit, along with this, the translation of his proposals together with Colonel Hamilton’s relation of the experiment he made, both which papers I humbly take the liberty to beg may be managed with a little secrecy for fear of injuring some persons here, who are thought to have employed themselves too much in favour of the said Baron.

Translation of the extract of Lieut.-General Peikel’s proposals to the Queen and Senate.

That it having pleased God to bless his study and labour for bringing him to the knowledge of a great secret; and he now laying under sentence of death was willing, in case he could thereby save his life, not only to reveal the said secret to any one person, to be under an oath of secrecy, whom his Majesty should think proper to appoint, but would likewise oblige himself to make at his own charge this year four hundred thousand ducats for his Majesty; and in case he performed not he then desired no mercy, but that not only the punishment of death might be inflicted upon him by virtue of the sentence lately pronounced against him, but that also there might be added any further punishment, as a just reward, for his demerits in presuming to abuse his Majesty.

He further obliged himself to make yearly, so long as he lived, the same quantity of gold for the King’s use, his Majesty building only a proper house for carrying on the work, and being at the charge of providing materials, and maintaining the servants which should be found necessary to be employed therein, the whole charge of which he computed would not amount to twenty thousand ducats yearly.

When he had performed what he thus proposed two years he then desired to have a reasonable enlargement, but in the meantime to be under the strictest confinement that was possible, and besides he would bind himself by the most solemn oath never to endeavour to make his escape, neither during the time of his confinement nor when he should have his liberty; and for further security he would forthwith dispose of his estate in the Brandenburg country and buy other lands of like value in Sweden and establish his family here.

And to confirm the probability of his being able to perform what he proposed, he desired that Colonel Hugo Hamilton and the Advocate Fiscal might be commanded to give an account of the experiment they were eye-witnesses to, or rather had themselves performed by his directions, he only having now and then been present during the operation. The whole charge of which operation cost not above twelve crowns and yet produced the weight in gold of forty-nine ducats, and the officers of the Mint attested the gold to be perfectly fine as any they ever saw.

These proposals were presented along with a petition to the King, January 4th, 1707.

Translation of Colonel Hugo Hamilton’s relation.

To the Queen’s Majesty most humble relation:—

Whereas Peikel, who lies under the sentence of death, has, in all humility, informed your Majesty of his having the knowledge of making gold and likewise offered to reveal the said secret, agreeable to what I also in all humility lately had the honour to acquaint your Majesty; wherefore in obedience now to your Majesty’s most gracious commands that I should in writing give a further humble account of that matter, therefore with the same humble intention for the service and advantage of my most gracious Sovereign as in all humility I formerly represented, I do now, by the oath and duty wherewith I am bound, declare that when Peikel first intimated to me his having that secret I suspected the truth of it a long time, and looked on his making me that confidence as a design he had the better by one means or other to make his escape.

Wherefore I also took care to have him the better guarded; but he several times after repeating the matter, and withal offering in my presence to make a proof thereof, to convince me that what he said was a real truth, I thought that such an opportunity of serving my most gracious King ought not to be neglected, and therefore I asked him if he was willing that I might take a second person to be also present, whereto he agreeing I thought none could be more properly employed than the Advocate Fiscal, Thomas Fehman, his accuser, whom, Peikel approving of, I acquainted the said Advocate Fiscal therewith and requested him to be a witness at the operation, who thereupon expressed himself that in case there was any reality in the thing he could not be a faithful subject who would not endeavour to forward so important a work; yet for his own person he was unwilling to be concerned therein lest he should thereby incur too many undeserved censures, however I importuned him till he at length promised to be present.

I forthwith permitted Peikel to begin the operation, which he did by dissolving of a powder of mineral antimony and winestone from Montpelier; this was set forty days in digestion, and afterwards was burnt with a prepared spirit that produced a greyish-coloured metal, which being beaten to powder was likewise set forty days in fermentation; when that time was expired it was taken out and mixed with powdered common antimony, brimstone, and a little lead, and was afterwards melted in a melting-pot and cast into a pot of brass metal, at the bottom whereof it left a weighty and substantial white metal, which being afterwards again melted in a melting-pot produced the same pure and fine gold that I showed your Majesty; and lest that any other than the true powder should be conveyed into the said pot, the Advocate Fiscal and I did by ourselves make the experiment, and found that the like quantity of the powder by us weighed produced the same effect as when Peikel was present.

I must acknowledge that during this operation I always suspected some deceit would be therein practised, and therefore more narrowly observed everything that Peikel undertook, as did likewise the Advocate Fiscal, whereto we frequently admonished each other. And whereas the best opportunity to practise the deceit seemed to be by conveying gold among the common antimony wherewith the chemical prepared powder was to be mixed, I therefore directed Peikel, the evening before, to weigh the same, but when he was gone I cast it away and took the same quantity of other common antimony, and the effect the virtue of the other powder produced both the Advocate Fiscal and I were witnesses to; and I do further declare upon my salvation, and the disfavour of my most gracious Master, that I do firmly believe, and do not otherwise know, but he the said Peikel is really possessed of the knowledge he pretends, and this the Advocate Fiscal must likewise, as a faithful servant of his Majesty, confirm whenever he is called upon.†

It was further between us agreed and resolved on, according to the oath and duty wherewith we are bound, to make a discovery of this affair, whatever sentence Peikel should receive; that this has thus been transacted I own, but the great secret, which consists in a very small composition, and which he prepared in an hour’s time, and is laid at the last melting amongst the other powder, I neither know, nor desire to know, it only having been both our sincere intentions to promote what we judged might conduce to the advantage and service of our most gracious King.

(Signed) Hugo Hamilton.‡

The refusal of Charles XII to entertain the proposals made to him by Baron Peikel, or to allow the Queen Regent’s intercession to turn him aside from his fixed resolve, does not in any way throw discredit on Peikel’s honesty of purpose or belief in his ability to carry out what he had undertaken. Charles’s utter recklessness where money was concerned is a matter of history. When this monarch ascended the throne in 1697, at the age of fifteen, he found a full treasury and the country at the height of prosperity. In a few years’ time the treasury was well-nigh exhausted, and Sweden was engaged in a gigantic struggle with Russia.

Any other monarch, at the period in question, would have taken Peikel at his word and put him to the crucial test. Had the promised gold not flowed from Peikel’s crucible, Charles could have satisfied his own revengeful spirit by putting Peikel to death in the same barbarous manner that disgraced the execution of the unfortunate Count Patkul. The Lutheran minister who attended Patkul in his last hours, and who wrote a MS. narrative of the Count’s chequered career and miserable death, has left on record the following anecdote regarding Baron Peikel, which story, if true, leaves an indelible stain on the character of Charles XII whose many noble qualities were marred by an implacable spirit which neither knew how to forgive nor how to forget.

After King Charles had entirely got the better of Augustus (King of Poland), and the latter was forced to comply with everything required of him, Augustus, in order to put the best face he could on a bad matter, made great entertainment for the King of Sweden at a very fine pleasure-house not far distant from Dresden. Peikul’s poor lady and children had taken a great journey from Stockholm, on purpose to solicit for her husband’s pardon; and King Augustus with his courtiers, as well as several of the King of Sweden’s officers, had promised her to make use of the utmost of their interest in his behalf; and had contrived the matter so, that after the usual jollity and good humour, caused by a great feast, she, with her children, should unexpectedly come into the dining-room, and fall at the King of Sweden’s feet, imploring his mercy for her husband; to which King Augustus, with all the other noble guests, were to join their intercession.

So far matters were well concerted; but the King of Sweden, having by some means or other got an inkling of this design, after he was come to the place appointed for the feast, and being resolved that nothing should prevent his intention, desired leave to retire for a few minutes before dinner, into a private closet, where he called for pen, ink, and paper, and wrote and signed an order which he sent by express for Peikul’s immediate execution upon receipt of it. After this he came out to dinner, which being ended, the poor woman and her children came in and flung herself at King Charles’s feet, as it had been forecasted, in the midst of the mirth, King Augustus with all the company mixing their intercessions with her tears.

The King of Sweden, after some seeming struggle, granted the pardon which was desired, and signed an instrument to that purpose, which by Peikul’s friends was presently despatched away. But the King’s courier arrived first at Stockholm, and poor Peikul was beheaded about four hours before the second got thither.§

Voltaire tells us in his History of Charles XII that when King Augustus (whose Saxon subjects had been heavily subsidised by the Swedish monarch) heard that Peikel had been executed, he said “he did not wonder that the King of Sweden had so much indifference for the Philosopher’s Stone as Charles had found it in Saxony.”

Baron Peikel’s great secret died with him. By his own showing he had expected the greatest happiness from his chemical discovery, but the path he pursued was not the “golden mean” which Horace recommended when he wrote the lines:—

Auream quisquis mediocritatem
Diligit, tutus caret obsoleti
Sordibus tecti, caret invidenda
Sobrius aula.

[Whoever cultivates the golden mean avoids both the poverty of a hovel and the envy of a palace. -ed.]

* We’ve grappled often with calendar ambiguity in these pages, but this one is a fun case. England was still on the Julian calendar at this point so the most recent Monday as of Jackson’s letter would have been Monday, February 3.

However, Sweden in the first years of 18th century was trying its own calendar: a strategy to “catch up” to the Gregorian calendar gradually over a period of 40 years instead of all at once. So, locally in Sweden, the calendar was off from both the Julian (one day ahead) and the Gregorian (ten days behind) and the beheading occurred on Monday, February 4. This is also the date supplied by Swedish volumes that have primary source access; by the same token, correspondence on the same event from a German perspective reports (p. 234) the equivalent Gregorian date of Monday, February 14. (Protestant German states, together with Denmark and the Netherlands, had adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700.)

Incidentally, Sweden’s strange attempt at calendar incrementalism proved a massive bust. A few years after Baron Peikel lost his head, Charles XII gave the Nordic calendar the chop too — ordering Sweden reverted back to the Julian schedule by the expedient of doubling the next leap-day. As a result, Sweden had a February 30, 1712. A free pack of Executed Today playing cards for anyone who can document a February 30 execution for the annals!

** Dalton’s original footnote on this word reads: “Royal Proclamation for all the King of Sweden’s subjects to return out of foreign service.”

† Sweden’s Royal Coin Cabinet still preserves the medal that was struck by the triumphant alchemist or prestidigitator out of his transmutation, stamped hoc aurum arte chimica conflavit holmle 1706 O. A. V. paykhull. (O. A. Von Paykhull cast this gold by chemical art at Stockholm, 1706.) This post badly wants an image of said artifact.

‡ A Scots-Irish officer, heir to the long tradition of Celtic involvement in Sweden.

§ Dalton’s footnote sources this anecdote to vol. 13 of Lord Somers’s Tracts by Walter Scott.

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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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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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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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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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