1643: The Book of Sports

Add comment May 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1643, all copies of the Book of Sports were publicly burned by the common hangman.

Product of the queer eddies of a century’s religious reformation, the 1617 edict commonly going under this winsome title was no athletes’ According to Hoyle; rather, it authorized for Sundays “any lawful recreation, such as dancing, either men or women; archery for men, leaping, vaulting, or any other such harmless recreation, nor from having of May-games, Whitsun-ales, and Morris-dances; and the setting up of May-poles and other sports therewith used.”

The day of the week was the decisive thing here. These traditional pastimes had long multiplied upon the numerous feast-days speckling the Catholic medieval calendar, but with the English Reformation this clutch of Papist holidays had been collapsed into just … Sundays. And so sportive Englishmen took their May-poles and Morris-dances to the Sabbath.


The Sabbath Breakers, by J.C. Dollman (1895)

By the late 16th and early 17th century the burgeoning Puritan movement was burnishing its sourpuss bona fides by — among other things — espousing a strict Sabbatarianism requiring that on their one day of rest from holiday-less labor people be “taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of His [God’s] worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy.” No vaulting or any other such harmless recreation for you!

I allowe not of such excesse of ryot & superfluitie as is there used. I thinke, it convenient for one Friend to visite another (at sometimes) as oportunitie & occasion shall offer it selfe, but wherfore shuld the whole towne, parish, village and cuntrey, keepe one and the same day, and make such gluttonous feasts as they doo? And therfore, to conclude, they are to no end, except it be to draw a great frequencie of whores, drabbes, theives and verlets together, to maintai[n] […] whordome, bawdrie, gluttony, drunkennesse, thiefte, murther, swearing and all kind of mischief and abhomination. For, these be the ends wherto these feastes, and wakesses doo tende.

-Philip Stubbes, 1583

As one might well suppose from the eventual alliances in the English Civil War, the sports stuff was one of the fault lines between high church and low, and between crown and Parliament. Like any proper inbred royal, King James I loved himself a good hunt, and not only of witches — so he was nonplussed when passing through Lancashire to discover citizen grievances over killjoy blackrobes shutting down their Maypoles. He issued the Book of Sports explicitly in response, “to see that no man do trouble or molest any of our loyal and dutiful people, in or for their lawful recreations.”* This gave leisure-seeking commoners something to throw in the faces of their neighborhood nabobs, and Puritans another abomination to grow incensed about.

The Book of Sports remained law of the realm into the reign of James’s Puritan-allergic son Charles I but Puritan muscle grew stronger all the while,** eventually becoming irresistible when Parliament was recalled in 1640 and the high church bishop William Laud was ousted.

The outcome in 1643 was the rough impeachment of the sports book and I don’t mean Vegas.

It is this day ordered by the Lords and Commons in Parliament, that the Booke concerning the enjoyning and tollerating of Sports upon the Lord’s Day be forthwith burned by the hand of the common Hangman in Cheape-side, and other usuall places: and to this purpose, the Sheriffs of London and Middlesex respectively are hereby required to be assistant to the effectuall execution of this order, and see the said Books burnt accordingly. And all persons who have any of the said Books in their hands, are hereby required forthwith to deliver them to one of the Sheriffes of London, to be burnt according to this Order.

John Browne, Cler. Parl.
Henry Elsynge, Cler. P.D. Com.

The Sheriffes of London and Middlesex have assigned Wednesday next the 10th of this instant May, at twelve of the clock, for the putting in execution of the foresaid Ordinance; and therefore doe require all persons that have any of the Bookes therein mentioned, to bring them in by that time, that they may be burned accordingly.

John Langham,
Thomas Andrewes

London

Printed for Thomas Underhill in Great Wood strete, May 9, 1643

Obviously this is not an “execution” even in the metaphorical sense of executions by effigy but part of the wider remit of the hangman, whose duties ran to all sorts of public law enforcement as well as to cajoling society’s untouchables.

Still, “purging by fire” of the printed word was extraordinary treatment reserved for blasphemous or seditious books, not uncommonly accompanied by corporal punishment or even death for their authors. It would not far stretch matters to see in the Puritan Parliament’s disdainful lese-majeste against the hand of the past king its imminent regicidal stroke upon the neck of the current one.

* The Book of Sports wasn’t all license; for the amusements it authorized, it prohibited them to those who “are not present in the church at the service of God, before their going to the said recreations.” Even for the godly it evinced explicit preference for “such exercises as may make [subjects’] bodies more able for war,” therefore excluding “all unlawful games to be used upon Sundays only, as bear and bull-baitings, interludes and at all times in the meaner sort of people by law prohibited, bowling.”

This was a man with a philosophy on exercise as rigorous as any personal fitness coach. James, who was a prolific scribbler, elsewhere “debarre[d] all rough and violent exercises, as the footeball; meeter for laming, than making able the users thereof.” In four centuries since James so pronounced, England have only ever won the football World Cup once.

** Numerous Puritans fled oppressively pleasurable off-days and took their dour Sabbaths to New England where their descendants could one day propound several of the world’s most obnoxious sporting concerns.

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1926: Melton Carr

2 comments January 1st, 2015 Headsman

In contemporary America, it would be next to unthinkable to schedule an execution for New Year’s Day — and asking the associated team of wardens, guards, executioners, witnesses, lawyers, and journalists to ditch New Year’s Rockin’ Eve and do a ball drop to a lethal chemical injection would be a complete nonstarter.

But the First of January, especially prior to the age of widespread telecommunication, was not always so sentimentally held. The Espy File of historical American executions records none whatsoever for Christmas Day, but several have occurred on New Year’s. We’ve previously profiled some of them in these grim annals, like Sylvester Henry Bell and Archilla Smith.

January 1 of 1926, “just 15 minutes after the arrival of the New Year” in the words of the Associated Press report, was the occasion in Huntsville, Texas for electrocuting African-American Melton Carr for raping a white woman in Walker County.

I have found hardly any information pertaining to this case online, but the detail that Carr was reprieved from an earlier execution date “on a petition from officials and citizens of Walker county” — implicitly, white citizens — might be a suggestive indicator for a crime so incendiary under other circumstances. We have seen that detail before in the case of Tom Joyner’s ancestors, who had broad clemency support because the racial politics of the time made an open judicial exploration of their actual innocence impossible.

Hours later, the first-ever radio broadcast of the Rose Bowl introduced another New Year’s Day tradition to the national consciousness — and just by the by, changed the South forever.

After that game, there would be only more January 1 execution date in American history: the 1943 double gassing of Rosanna and Daniel Phillips.

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1936: Josep Sunyol, FC Barcelona President

Add comment August 6th, 2013 Headsman

FC Barcelona is many a sportive leftist’s major European football side of choice, thanks to the club’s longtime identification with its city’s Catalan anti-Francoism.

That identification, stretching all the way back to the club’s formative early-20th century years (“History of FC Barcelona” enjoys its own voluminous Wikipedia page) put the Barca president at the end of fascist guns on this date in 1936.

Josep Sunyol was born into the Catalan elite, and had a varied career in the public eye: left activist, parliamentary deputy, newspaper founder, and, come 1935, president of FC Barcelona. He’d been serving on the Barca board of directors since 1928. There’s a lengthy Sunyol biography here.


At the center of the rail, Sunyol (left) chats with Catalan president Lluis Companys. (Source)

It was in his political, rather than his footballing, capacity that in August 1936 — just days into the Spanish Civil War — Sunyol traveled from Barcelona to Madrid to meet with fellow Republicans.

He never made it back.

On the return trip from Madrid, Sunyol’s chauffeured car flying the Catalan senyera was stopped by pro-Franco Falangist forces in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid. It may have been only inadvertently that Sunyol crossed this checkpoint of nationalists, who were already gathering for an attack on Madrid that would eventually inspire For Whom The Bell Tolls. (Indeed, this novel is set in the Sierra de Guadarrama.)

Whatever Sunyol’s intention, he was quickly recognized and detained by his foes on the evening of August 6. Shortly thereafter, they decided to shoot him out of hand.

The civil war and the era of Franco are still sensitive topic in Spain, but FC Barcelona’s politically engaged supporters have pushed the present-day club (with partial success) to more overtly embrace its anti-fascist “martyr president”.

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1939: Alexander Kosarev, Spartak Moscow patron

1 comment February 23rd, 2013 Headsman

Set against the background of the Soviet moderisation process, the development of sport in the two decades from the early 1930s to the early 1950s not only established the world-recognised pattern of sport in the Soviet Union and, later, in many other communistcountries (like China, Cuba and the GDR), it also resulted in a phenomenon unprecedentedin world sports history: the arrest and execution of a host of sports personalities. No one knows the exact numberof victims; but the purges carried off five sports ministers, Olympic Committee members for the Baltic states, heads of the major physical education colleges, eminent sports scientists and medics4 and probably thousands of leading athletes.

-Jim Riordan*

Sports and the physical body emerged early in Soviet history as a major doctrinal focus. A 1925 party resolution (quoted in this pdf) declared it

“essential to consider physical culture not only from the standpoint of physical education and health, and as one aspect of our youth’s cultural-industrial and military training, but also as a method of educating the masses.”


Dziga Vertov’s Soviet silent masterpiece Man With A Movie Camera (1929). This clip should cue up at the sports bit (45:26), but the entire film is a must-watch.

In the Stalin years, Soviet athletics took on the institutional patterns that continue to structure Russian sport to this day.

Given his position during the time of purges, Alexander Kosarev might have been bound for a bad end regardless. At least he had the consolation of leaving his fingerprints on a sporting institution that still thrives to this day.

We get to Kosarev by way of another man, Nikolai Starostin, an elite athlete of the 1920s and 1930s.**

A hockey star as well as a footballer, Starostin supported his family with his athletic gifts in the 1920s, and in 1922 helped found the local sports club that eventually developed into one of Europe’s most storied champions.

After juggling sponsorships and team names for a decade, Starostin approached Kosarev about bringing the club under the patronage of the Communist Party’s youth organ Komsomol, which Kosarev headed. He also suggested the name by which the team is still known, Spartak Moscow — paying tribute to the ancient rebel Spartacus.†

Komsomol support was not Komsomol control, however: Spartak remained basically independent, and this set it starkly apart from the other top Soviet teams, each controlled by a state ministry and its associated industry. (e.g., Lokomotiv Moscow, or the Red Army team CSKA.‡)

The football bully on the block at the time was Dynamo Moscow, a club dating to the tsarist age that was in the ambit of the internal security services. Dynamo won the first Soviet championship in 1936.

But Spartak quickly stepped over the Lokomotivs and established itself as Dynamo’s top rival.

Football matches, like everything else in Stalinist Moscow, were about politics, bureaucratic infighting, and the characteristic through-the-looking-glass rules of the dictatorship. Spartak used a controversial goal to beat Dynamo Tblisi (there were six Dynamo teams in the top division) in a Soviet Cup semifinals in 1939, the last before World War II. After Spartak went on to win the final, the Dynamo teams’ scary patron, NKVD boss Lavrenty Beria, ordered the semifinal match replayed. Spartak, already the tournament champion, then proceeded to win its semifinal a second time, compounding Beria’s fury. The referee from the first match was later arrested.

Beria was a passionate fan of the beautiful game — the ultimate football hooligan, you might say. He frequently attended Dynamo matches.

The secret police chief had even played for a Georgian club in his youth; in fact, he had played against (and lost to) a Starostin team. (Starostin thought Beria was a dirty player. Truly the Georgian was a man who tackled life studs-up.)

In contrast to Dynamo’s establishment backing, independent Spartak didn’t even have a home stadium until 1956. Nevertheless, it soon began attracting a sizable popular following. Its tactics were less stodgy; its persona less institutionally leaden; its star, Starostin, was a legend. And Spartak won, a lot.

“The people’s team” became a pole for — not resistance, exactly. But something a little bit alienated. A little bit defiant. Sport might not be your thing, but you have to appreciate any team that can embarrass the national torturer-in-chief. You have to appreciate the opportunity to hiss the secret police under cover of innocent fandom.

Unfortunately, Spartak’s Komsomol patron Kosarev fell. There’s an apocryphal story that Kosarev’s fate was football-related; surely the rivalry did him no favors when his life was hanging in the balance.

But it was actually just the routine infighting that did Soviet bureaucrats in throughout the late 1930s. His power eroded; a Komsomol official whom Kosarev had previously booted went over his head to Stalin himself, and Uncle Joe’s apparatchiks brought him down at a November 1938 Komsomol plenum with accusations of favoritism and alcoholism. (Stalin popped in briefly to see if “maybe this is a system and not a mistake?”)

Kosarev spent November 19-22 desperately fending off accusations at the rostrum, was removed from his post by the end of the session, and resided in a Lubyanka dungeon before the month was out. And you thought your committee meetings were awful.§

Kosarev got the bullet. Spartak lived on.

So did Starostin, who was not executed but sent to the Gulag. In 1948, Stalin’s son Vasily extracted Starostin to use as a coach for the Soviet Air Force’s football team, leading to a bizarre saga as a, well, human football between Vasily and Beria. (Beria’s security services kept trying to arrest Starostin, leaving the coach shuttled from city to city as the political winds shifted — and sometimes even bunking with his young protector and the revolver Vasily kept under his pillow. All for football!)

Kosarev was rehabilitated shortly after Stalin died. Khrushchev mentioned him by name in his “secret speech” denouncing the previous years’ terror.

Book CoverAnd since Stalin’s death precipitated Beria’s own execution, Starostin was rehabilitated as well. “It was like the sun rising in the Far North after the long Polar night,” Starostin remembered of 1953.

The exiled football legend returned to coach and manage Spartak Moscow — from 1955 until 1992, when he retired at age 90. Nikolai Starostin was associated with the club he helped create in 1922 almost as long as the Soviet Union was associated with Russia: 70 years … minus those lost to the Arctic labor camps.

“Camp bosses, arbiters of the life and death of thousands upon thousands of human beings, personifications of the GULAG brutalities and horrors, were so benevolent to anything concerning soccer,” said Starostin in his memoirs of the starstruck commandants who treated their special prisoner with kid gloves and invariably recruited Starostin to coach local clubs. (Dynamo clubs, ironically.) “Their unbridled power over human lives was nothing compared to the power of soccer over them.”

“The soccer ball was always out of Beria’s reach.”

* “The Strange Story of Nikolai Starostin, Football and Lavrentii Beria,” Europe-Asia Studies, Vol. 46, No. 4 (1994). Riordan, a Briton, played for Spartak in the 1960s. (He wote an autobiography about it.)

** Nikolai was the oldest of four Kosarev brothers, all four of whom played for Spartak. All four were also arrested and tortured in 1942. Nikolai was the only one of them to remain involved in football after his release.

† Spartak was a change from the previous name, Red Presnya — an equally revolutionary nomenclature.

‡ In the 1930s, the Red Army team was known as CDKA. The reason its name changed was because a CDKA-based national team lost to Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1952 World Cup, and Stalin in a huff ordered the CDKA club dissolved.

§ Information on Kosarev’s fall and the November 1938 Komsomol plenum from Seth Bernstein’s 2011 University of Toronto graduate paper “‘Lifestyle Cannot Be Separate from Politics': Degeneracy and Promotion in the Purge of the Soviet Komsomol Leadership, 1934-1938″. This paper no longer appears to be available online.

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2010: Shahla Jahed, the footballer’s lover

Add comment December 1st, 2011 Headsman

At 5:00 a.m. this date last year, Shahla Jahed was hanged at Iran’s Evin prison for murdering the wife of Iranian footballer Nasser Mohammadkhani.

An international human rights cause celebre from the time of her 2004 conviction in a sordid televised trial, Jahed was also Mohammadkhani’s wife under a “temporary marriage” arrangement that was secret from his “real” wife Laleh Saharkhizan. So you might say, his mistress.

Both these women’s last day of liberty was the one in 2002 that Saharkhizan turned up knifed to death while Mohammadkhani was in Europe on soccer business. Jahed was arrested immediately, beginning a “taboo-breaking” legal odyssey.

After months of refusing to talk, she confessed to the murder in prison, even re-enacting the crime.

But by the time of her trial — in which an emotional, combative Jahed conducted her own defense — she very plausibly claimed that the confession had been extracted by torture. Here’s a bit of it, from the documentary Red Card (banned in Iran) that can be enjoyed in full on YouTube:

While Jahed herself made for can’t-look-away TV, the appearance of a onetime champion athlete in a feet-of-clay turn has led this affair to be compared to the O.J. Simpson murder case.

Like the Juice, Mohammadkhani was temporarily in some danger of death penalty charges himself; he spent several months in prison. Ultimately, he avoided jeopardy to his neck as a potential accessory or instigator by Jahed’s repudiated I-did-it-myself confession — possibly another reason why Jahed confessed in the first place — but the former striker did endure 74 lashes for the revelation that he and his temporary wife enjoyed chilling out with opium. Strictly verboten in Iran, of course.

And Mohammadkhani’s brush with the law scarred his honor even more than his backside. Beyond the possibility that she took the heat for him, the celebrity athlete potentially in a position to use his pull to save a woman’s life clammed up as her case progressed and deferred to his late wife’s family’s decision whether or not to give Jahed mercy. Reportedly, Mohammadkhani even attended the hanging — where Jahed again sobbed and begged for mercy until one of Saharkhizan’s relatives personally kicked the chair out from under Jahed’s feet.

The case itself had an unusually long lifespan in the judiciary; Jahed had been imprisoned well over eight years by the time she died. In 2008, the gears were even stopped by Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, a figure known in Iran for his support of de-escalating capital punishment generally.

Shahroudi’s ordering a new investigation provided fodder for critics like Amnesty International who considered the trial unfair.

Iranian journalist Fereshteh Ghazi, who as a political prisoner in 2004 briefly shared a cell with our principal, made an even stronger critique.

Even if Shahla had committed the crime, which she didn’t, Shahla and the murdered wife are both victims of a male-dominated society, a system that gives all the rights to men. Shahla, Laleh [the murdered wife], and all other women like them are all victims of flaws in the Iranian judicial system and Iran’s unequal judicial system. Even the person who pulled away the chair today in her execution is a victim of the system.

Apropos of the women-in-the-judicial-system theme, Jahed’s case and even her execution were to some extent overshadowed by the simultaneous headline-grabbing matter of Sakineh Mohammadi Ashtiani, an Azeri woman who was at the time fighting a repugnant sentence of stoning for adultery. By December 2010, Iran had backed off the stoning bit without quite agreeing that Ashtiani wouldn’t be executed in some other way; in January 2011, it remitted Astiani’s death sentence altogether.

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1403: Thomas Percy, Earl of Worcester

1 comment July 23rd, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1403, Henry IV made sauce of the Earl of Worcester after the Battle of Shrewsbury.

Thomas Percy was the uncle of northern rebel Sir Henry Percy, evocatively known as “Hotspur”.*


Rampant: statue of Hotspur Harry Percy at Northumberland’s Alnwick Castle. (cc) image from Bootneck Photography.

This Northumberland lord, whose name hints at his reputation for for ferocity and impetuousness, was not necessarily incensed in principle at Henry Bolingbroke‘s usurpation of the English crown as Henry IV. In fact, he took an appointment to put down the anti-Lancastrian rebellion of Welsh troublemaker Owain Glyndwr. (Percy didn’t succeed.)

But this royal imposter didn’t pay off Percy richly enough in either coin or respect.

Hotspur left Wales to whomp the Scots at the Battle of Humbleton Hill, but King Henry’s demand that he turn over the big-name prisoners taken in that battle (instead of ransoming them for profit) — coupled with Henry’s own refusal to ransom Hotspur’s brother-in-law Edmund Mortimer from Welsh captivity — provoked a furious row between “king” and “subject”. Henry IV is supposed to have denounced Henry Percy a traitor and drawn a blade on him.

“Not here,” Hotspur raged, “but in the field!”

Alas: the field wasn’t kind to the Percies this time.

A revolt raised by a guy named Hotspur should hardly fail for want of ambition, and this one was the hottest of spurs: the Percies (with our day’s principal, Uncle Worcester) made a pact with Glyndwr (still going strong in Wales) and Glyndwr’s hostage-turned-son-in-law Edmund Mortimer (who was the uncle of the kid who should have been king) to give Bolingbroke the boot and carve up the realm between them.

Shakespeare represents this argument at the start of Henry IV, Part 1, and the conflict it engenders will drive that play’s story. This is Hotspur privately fuming after Henry has refused to help Mortimer (Act I, Scene 3):

let my soul
Want mercy, if I do not join with him: [i.e., Mortimer]
Yea, on his part I’ll empty all these veins,
And shed my dear blood drop by drop in the dust,
But I will lift the down-trod Mortimer
As high in the air as this unthankful king,
As this ingrate and canker’d Bolingbroke.

Orson Welles’ Chimes at Midnight abridges this and several other Shakespeare plays, and its opening action — after the Falstaff and credits — sets our stage. Worcester here is played by French Connection villain Fernando Rey.

Shrewbury was the result, a battle that up to the moment it commenced seemed amenable to mediation. Worcester himself negotiated face to face with King Henry, but refused to submit himself trusting the sovereign’s mercy. “On you must rest the blood shed this day,” Henry told him.

Some of that blood was Hotspur’s, as a result of a freak combat injury: he took a fatal arrow to the face when he raised his armor’s visor to get some air.**

Worcester didn’t outlive him by much — as depicted in Act V, Scene 4, he was summarily executed shortly after the battle:

KING HENRY IV

Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.
Ill-spirited Worcester! did not we send grace,
Pardon and terms of love to all of you?
And wouldst thou turn our offers contrary?
Misuse the tenor of thy kinsman’s trust?
Three knights upon our party slain to-day,
A noble earl and many a creature else
Had been alive this hour,
If like a Christian thou hadst truly borne
Betwixt our armies true intelligence.

EARL OF WORCESTER

What I have done my safety urged me to;
And I embrace this fortune patiently,
Since not to be avoided it falls on me.

KING HENRY IV

Bear Worcester to the death and Vernon too:
Other offenders we will pause upon.

(Vernon was one of two knights executed with Worcester in Shrewsbury.)

* Yes, the English football club Tottenham Hotspur is named for the dashing Henry Percy. “Audere Est Facere” is the team’s motto, “to dare is to do” … even though that totally didn’t work out for Hotspur himself.

** Oddly enough, Hotspur’s opposite number Prince Henry (the future victor of Agincourt, Henry V), also got shot in the face in this battle.

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2006: Two Egyptians who just wanted to watch the game

Add comment December 11th, 2010 Headsman

Nineteen-year-old shoe-shiner Hosni Ramadan Mahmoud Ahmed and his friend Ramadan Abu Al-Magd Azab were hanged in Qena, Egypt on this date in 2006 for murdering Ahmed’s two-year-old stepdaughter.

“Apparently infuriated that the crying baby was disrupting their viewing of a football match on television,” read the crime blotter. “Ahmed smashed the two year old’s head against a wall and electrocuted her.

“The two men then dumped her body in a nearby school.”


Egypt football fans would like to enjoy the game in peace. (cc) image from blogdroed.

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1979: Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, former dictator of Ghana

2 comments June 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1979, former Ghanaian military strongman Ignatius Kutu Acheampong was shot in the aftermath of Jerry Rawlings’ successful coup d’etat.

Acheampong had executed a coup of his own in 1972 and run the unsteady West African state for most of the 1970s — a period of economic and political crisis — until he himself was toppled by another General, Fred Akuffo.

Acheampong was retired to his home village by the new regime, but he would not enjoy such satisfactory treatment when a national revolution ended Akuffo’s reign and brought junior officer Jerry Rawlings to power.

Less than two weeks after Rawlings was installed as Ghana’s new head of state, Acheampong was executed on a charge of corruption. This would not sate the considerable popular anger at the outgoing military clique, which went on to gorge itself on Akuffo and five others later that same month.

Former NFL defensive back Charlie Peprah is Acheampong’s grandson.

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71 B.C.E.: The followers of Spartacus

1 comment May 15th, 2010 Headsman

… a Thracian of Nomadic stock, possessed not only of great courage and strength, but also in sagacity and culture superior to his fortune, and more Hellenic than Thracian. It is said that when he was first brought to Rome to be sold, a serpent was seen coiled about his face as he slept, and his wife, who was of the same tribe as Spartacus, a prophetess, and subject to visitations of the Dionysiac frenzy, declared it the sign of a great and formidable power which would attend him to a fortunate issue.

-Plutarch, The Life of Crassus

On an uncertain date roughly around this time in 71 B.C.E., some 6,000 survivors of the shattered rebel slave army of Spartacus in Rome’s Third Servile War were crucified along the Appian Way.

The specific chronology of this legendary warrior, leader of the last major slave revolt against Rome, is necessarily foggy, but in fine, he broke out of a gladiators’ camp in 73 B.C.E. and went on to lead a slave army some 100,000 strong up and down the Italian peninsula for two solid years, repeatedly stomping Roman forces sent to suppress him.

His motivations remain mysterious; if one likes, one can project back on him an anachronistic anti-slavery project, but it’s more likely he was just trying to get by day by day as the greatest empire* on the planet harried his every move and internal divisions tore at the rebel camp.

Nevertheless, Spartacus and army prospered, and plundered, in the very heart of that empire, and gave Senators reason to fret the security of their capital even as their legions carried Roman arms from Spain to Palestine.

The army (for the gladiators organized it with military discipline, realizing a mob would be easy prey for Rome) was trapped, at last, at the toe of the Italian boot by Roman plutocrat Crassus, later to become a patron of, and fellow triumvir with, Julius Caesar. Abandoned by pirates with whom the slave army attempted to negotiate passage, it was a desperate situation. Spartacus, writes Appian, “crucified a Roman prisoner in no-man’s land to demonstrate to his own troops the fate awaiting them if they were defeated.”

Duly inspired, Spartacus and his army broke out of the Roman circumvallation around February of 71 B.C.E. Hemmed in by a second Roman force, the slaves turned to fight their pursuer, Spartacus dramatically sticking a blade into his own warhorse before the fight as another one of those conquer-or-die pregame speeches.

In The Spartacus War, Barry Strauss estimates April of 71 B.C.E. for that decisive battle. The slaves lost it; Spartacus died in combat, and his ancient calumniators vied to sing his heroism on the field.

But 6,000 survivors did not go down fighting to the death. These, Crassus staked out along one of Rome’s principal highways, the carcasses left to disintegrate there for months or years.


Cursed field. The place of execution in ancient Rome. Crucified slave. (Fyodor Bronnikov, 1878)

He’s easy to admire now,** but slave revolts scare the bejeezus out of slave societies, and the Spartacus rising would keep generations — centuries — of Romans sweating about a potential repeat. (At least, elite Romans, the ones whose voices remain for us.)

Their pejorative take on Spartacus (aside from his personal valor and martial excellence, for which even hostile writers gave him credit) was long the received wisdom on this upsetter of divinely established social order. “From a small and contemptible band of robbers,” sniffed Saint Augustine of the gladiators, “they attained to a kingdom.” They “enjoyed whatever pleasures they wished, and did what their lust suggested.”

The present-day reader’s readiest association is likely the much more admiring — and famously homoerotic, which is now yet another connotation for the gladiator’s name — Stanley Kubrick classic Spartacus, which turns 50 this year and gave to the cinematic canon the stirring “I’m Spartacus!” scene as the captured slave army defiantly embraces death.

This episode is completely ahistorical, but so what? One of the wildest things about this sword-and-sandal production is how much of it isn’t made-up. Like the premise: in the lifetime of Julius Caesar, a few guys busting out of gladiator school using nothing but kitchen utensils threatened for two years to turn the Eternal City and its far-flung realms upside-down.

* Okay, still a republic, if you like. But those days were fast coming to a close.

** Especially for modern leftist radicals; Marx and Che Guevara were both big fans; German communists Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht named their movement for Spartacus, and it was during Berlin’s “Spartacus Week” that they were murdered.

A number of sports clubs in the former Soviet bloc also carry the Spartacus name, including Russian football power Spartak Moscow as well as several clubs in Bulgaria, which currently governs most of the rebel slave’s ancestral homeland of Thrace.

A few books about Spartacus

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Ancient,Arts and Literature,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Crucifixion,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Entertainers,Execution,Famous,Gibbeted,Gruesome Methods,Guerrillas,History,Italy,Known But To God,Language,Mass Executions,Myths,No Formal Charge,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Roman Empire,Slaves,Soldiers,Treason,Uncertain Dates,Wartime Executions

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1987: Jimmy Glass, electrocution appellant

June 12th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1987, Jimmy L. Glass died in Louisiana’s electric chair — having come one vote short of having the device declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.

The 20-year-old Glass escaped from a parish jail with fellow inmate Jimmy Wingo on Christmas Eve, 1982, robbing and murdering an elderly couple in the process. Each blamed the other; both got the chair.*

But should they have?

Glass would lend his name to a landmark 1985 Supreme Court decision contesting Louisiana’s method of execution.

By a 5-4 decision, the high court held that electrocution, still at that point the country’s prevailing method of execution despite its medieval reputation for grisly botches, remained a constitutional method of inflicting death.

Liberal Justice William Brennan‘s vigorous dissent from that judgment is not for the squeamish. (For readability, I’ve added emphasis and removed the many citations in the original.)

[E]vidence suggests that death by electrical current is extremely violent and inflicts pain and indignities far beyond the “mere extinguishment of life.” Witnesses routinely report that, when the switch is thrown, the condemned prisoner “cringes,” “leaps,” and ” ‘fights the straps with amazing strength.’ ” “The hands turn red, then white, and the cords of the neck stand out like steel bands.” The prisoner’s limbs, fingers, toes, and face are severely contorted. The force of the electrical current is so powerful that the prisoner’s eyeballs sometimes pop out and “rest on [his] cheeks.” The prisoner often defecates, urinates, and vomits blood and drool.

“The body turns bright red as its temperature rises,” and the prisoner’s “flesh swells and his skin stretches to the point of breaking.” Sometimes the prisoner catches on fire, particularly “if [he] perspires excessively.” Witnesses hear a loud and sustained sound ” like bacon frying,” and “the sickly sweet smell of burning flesh” permeates the chamber. This “smell of frying human flesh in the immediate neighbourhood of the chair is sometimes bad enough to nauseate even the Press representatives who are present.” In the meantime, the prisoner almost literally boils: “the temperature in the brain itself approaches the boiling point of water,” and when the postelectrocution autopsy is performed “the liver is so hot that doctors have said that it cannot be touched by the human hand.” The body frequently is badly burned and disfigured.

The violence of killing prisoners through electrical current is frequently explained away by the assumption that death in these circumstances is instantaneous and painless. This assumption, however, in fact “is open to serious question” and is “a matter of sharp conflict of expert opinion.” Throughout the 20th century a number of distinguished electrical scientists and medical doctors have argued that the available evidence strongly suggests that electrocution causes unspeakable pain and suffering. Because ” ‘[t]he current flows along a restricted path into the body, and destroys all the tissue confronted in this path . . . [i]n the meantime the vital organs may be preserved; and pain, too great for us to imagine, is induced. . . . For the sufferer, time stands still; and this excruciating torture seems to last for an eternity.‘ ” L.G.V. Rota, a renowned French electrical scientist, concluded after extensive research that

“[i]n every case of electrocution, . . . death inevitably supervenes but it may be very long, and above all, excruciatingly painful . . . . [T]he space of time before death supervenes varies according to the subject. Some have a greater physiological resistance than others. I do not believe that anyone killed by electrocution dies instantly, no matter how weak the subject may be. In certain cases death will not have come about even though the point of contact of the electrode with the body shows distinct burns. Thus, in particular cases, the condemned person may be alive and even conscious for several minutes without it being possible for a doctor to say whether the victim is dead or not. . . . This method of execution is a form of torture.”

At least neither the juridical near miss nor Brennan’s graphic description of his impending manner of death dented Jimmy’s sense of humor. Asked for his last words, the “swaggering” inmate, already strapped in the chair, replied

Yeah, I think I’d rather be fishing.

Luckily for Carlisle United, he’s not the same guy as journeyman goaltender Jimmy Glass, who in 1999 improbably struck home one of the greatest goals in English football history.

* Wingo was put to death four days after Glass.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Electrocuted,Execution,Gallows Humor,Louisiana,Murder,Notable Jurisprudence,Theft,USA

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