756: Yang Guifei, favored concubine

Add comment July 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.

The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.

The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.

Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.

The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.

The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.

His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.

One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.

In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.

Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.

The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.

One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.

In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:

“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,China,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Sex,Strangled,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1849: Frederick and Marie Manning, a Dickensian scene

7 comments November 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, husband-and-wife murderers Frederick and Marie Manning (or Maria Manning) were publicly hanged together outside Horsemonger Lane Gaol in London.

An image of Marie Manning (nee Marie de Roux) from the Victorian popular press — from this romantic biography of Tolstoyan length available free from Google books.

The felonious pair — she a Swiss-born domestic; he a shifty laborer with a penchant for the inside job — lured to dinner in their Bermondsey home a wealthy friend who had designs on the redheaded knockout, then murdered him for his loot and stuffed the limed body under the floorboards. They were apprehended separately on the lam.

As is typical when a heartthrob femme fatale stands in the dock, a sensational trial of the “here today, gone tomorrow” variety ensued. The crime, nicknamed “the Bermondsey Horror” (here (pdf) is a book chapter-scale recounting), had each accusing the other, with the outcome usual for this site.

A massive, jeering throng turned out to see the two off (Mrs. Manning’s choice of black satin for the occasion is said to have caused the look to go out of fashion).

Among that crowd was Charles Dickens,* who took a break from working on David Copperfield to write The Times a letter published Nov. 14 demanding that executions be removed within prison walls on account of the unedifying conduct of the spectators.

Sir — I was a witness of the execution at Horsemonger-lane this morning. I went there with the intention of observing the crowd gathered to behold it, and I had excellent opportunities of doing so, at intervals all through the night, and continuously from daybreak until after the spectacle was over.

I believe that a sight so inconceivably awful as the wickedness and levity of the immense crowd collected at that execution this morning could be imagined by no man, and could be presented in no heathen land under the sun. The horrors of the gibbet and of the crime which brought the wretched murderers to it, faded in my mind before the atrocious bearing, looks and language, of the assembled spectators. When I came upon the scene at midnight, the shrillness of the cries and howls that were raised from time to time, denoting that they came from a concourse of boys and girls already assembled in the best places, made my blood run cold. As the night went on, screeching, and laughing, and yelling in strong chorus of parodies on Negro melodies, with substitutions of “Mrs. Manning” for “Susannah,” and the like, were added to these. When the day dawned, thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds of every kind, flocked on to the ground, with every variety of offensive and foul behaviour. Fightings, faintings, whistlings, imitations of Punch, brutal jokes, tumultuous demonstrations of indecent delight when swooning women were dragged out of the crowd by the police with their dresses disordered, gave a new zest to the general entertainment. When the sun rose brightly — as it did — it gilded thousands upon thousands of upturned faces, so inexpressibly odious in their brutal mirth or callousness, that a man had cause to feel ashamed of the shape he wore, and to shrink from himself, as fashioned in the image of the Devil. When the two miserable creatures who attracted all this ghastly sight about them were turned quivering into the air, there was no more emotion, no more pity, no more thought that two immortal souls had gone to judgment, no more restraint in any of the previous obscenities, than if the name of Christ had never been heard in this world, and there were no belief among men but that they perished like the beasts.

… I am solemnly convinced that nothing that ingenuity could devise to be done in this city, in the same compass of time, could work such ruin as one public execution, and I stand astounded and appalled by the wickedness it exhibits. I do not believe that any community can prosper where such a scene of horror and demoralization as was enacted this morning outside Horsemonger-lane Gaol is presented at the very doors of good citizens, and is passed by, unknown or forgotten.

Dickens would base a French maid named Mademoiselle Hortense in his next novel, Bleak House on Marie Manning.

This question of public as opposed to private hangings was a lively debate at the time, and Dickens’s view was hardly uncontested. A letter in response from one F.B. Head of Oxenton countered thus:

The merciful object of every punishment which the law inflicts is not so much to revenge the past crime as to prevent its recurrence. Now, Mrs. Manning’s last moments clearly explain, or rather indisputably prove, the benefit which society practically derives from a public execution. … as for a few fleeting moments she stood, with bandaged eyes, beneath the gibbet, how unanswerably did the picture mutely expound the terror which the wicked very naturally have of being publicly hanged before the scum and refuse of society! “The whistlings — the imitations of Punch — the brutal jokes and indecent delight of the thieves, low prostitutes, ruffians and vagabonds,” so graphically described by Mr. Charles Dickens were — by her own showing — not only the most fearful portion of her sentence but, under Providence, these coarse ingredients may possibly have effected that momentary repentance which the mild but fervent exhortations of the chaplain had failed to produce.

But, besides the impolicy of divesting the death by law of a murderer of the most effective portion of its terrors, there are, Sir, I submit, higher and infinitely more important reasons, which make it our bounden duty to require that every criminal who suffers death should be executed in public.

So long as it shall be deemed advisable by us, by laws divine as well as human, to deprive the murderer of his life, the whole process of his trial, ending in an act of such awful responsiblity, ought to be performed in open day, in order that the community may at all events clearly see what it is they are doing — what it is they have done. The purple hands of the wretched sufferer sufficiently explain what the white nightcap hypocritically conceals, namely, the dreadful act that has been performed; and, although thieves and prostitutes may ridicule the convulsions they witness, there will, it is to be hoped, in a free country and with a free press, always be found among an English crowd some one fellow-creature possessing the kindly feelings of Mr. Charles Dickens, who, should he see sufficient reasons for doing so, will not only call upon the country most seriously to consider whether the punishment he delineates has not exceeded the offence, but, as an honest witness, will condemn and expose any unnecessary harshness or cruelty that may have accompanied it.”

Even the legendary British humor magazine Punch weighed in, with a famous cartoon skewering the mob who turned up for public hangings.**


“The Great Moral Lesson at Horsemonger Lane Gaol”, Punch magazine’s rendition of the Mannings’ execution — turning its gaze not on the scaffold but on the unruly crowd beneath it. It comes with a poem.

Public executions would continue in England until 1868.

* Not the only literary big wheel in the crowd: Herman Melville also checked it out. No indication they bumped into each other, and no surprise: the crowd was so huge that at least one spectator was crushed to death against a police barricade. (As reported by Hanging in the Balance: A History of the Abolition of Capital Punishment in Britain, which numbers the onlookers at 30,000 and claims 2.5 million execution broadsheets were sold.)

** According to Dickens and Crime, Dickens actually observed the hanging with the Punch cartoonist who sketched “The Great Moral Lesson” (the two went in together to rent out a well-placed roof “for the extremely moderate sum of Ten Guineas”). That artist, John Leech, had illustrated Dickens’ A Christmas Carol a few years before.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Women

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