1868: Georg Ratkay, the last public hanging in Vienna

Add comment May 30th, 2019 Headsman

Vienna’s last public execution was the raucous May 30, 1868 hanging of Georg Ratkay.

The 23-year-old Hungarian proletarian had migrated to the bustling capital where he found accommodation as a “bedwalker”, literally renting hours in a bed shared by shifts with others. In January of 1868, he bludgeoned a carpenter’s wife to death in the course of robbing her.

For a few months that year it was the outrage on the lips of every Viennese and when the day came lips and limbs and leering eyes thronged as one into the square surrounding the Spinnerin am Kreuz tower, where the execution was to take place. By report of the Neue Freie Presse, the plaza was already bustling with early campers by 2 in the morning although the hanging wouldn’t go off until the evening. Roofs of adjacent taverns and factories made their owners a tidy profit charging gawkers for the vantage point, as did custodians of improvised grandstands hastily thrown up on the scene.

There were many reports of the indecencies of this bawdy and bloodthirsty gaggle, making merry for the “unusually pleasurable spectacle” and lubricated on beer served by vendors who also plied their trade here. Essayist Friedrich Schlögl gave voice to the disdain of respectable Vienna, in a piece quoted from Unruly Masses: The Other Side of Fin-de-siecle Vienna:

These were the habitues of the gallows, of both sexes — pinched faces, regular customers of the noisiest bars, inmates of the dirtiest cellars of poverty and squalor, a composite mixture of the many-headed company of knaves … All who had not been detained in prisons, asylums, and other Imperial establishments for improvement had come out for crude pleasure. Right through until dawn, the mob made the most appalling nuisance; then when day eventually broke and the food sellers came around hawking their “criminal sausages,” “poor sinner pretzels,” “gallows sandwiches,” etc., all hell broke loose and thousands upon thousands became as frenzied as was the fashion at the Brigittenauer Kirtag in days long past.

Only with difficulty (and rifle butts) could the hussars escorting the death party actually force their way through the mob to bring the star attraction to the post for his Austrian-style “pole hanging”.*

Then the “poor sinner” arrived and the official procedure took its undisturbed course. Was the crowd enraged? Was it shocked by the frightful sin? A jubilant cheer echoed through the air when, at the moment the executioner adjusted the candidate’s head, a pole broke and hundreds of curious spectators pressed forward. The joyous cries of at least a thousand throats went on to reward the clever trick of a man who knocked a coachman’s hat off because he “thoughtlessly” kept it on when the priest began his prayer.

The Emperor Franz Joseph I, who was already commuting most of the empire’s death sentences as a matter of policy** and had lost his own brother to a firing squad the year before, was so disgusted by the commotion that he never again permitted such a scene in Vienna. Ratkay’s hanging is commonly described as the last public execution in all of Austria, although according to the Austrian State Archive there were actually six more, all lower-key affairs away from the imperial center, before 1873 legislation formally moved all executions behind prison walls.

* For images of this distinctive execution method, see photos of Italian nationalist Cesare Battisti or video of World War II war criminal Karl Hermann Frank undergoing the punishment.

** The Austrian State Archive page linked above claims that of 559 death sentences from 1868 to 1876, only 14 came to actual execution.

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1867: Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, “Archdupe”

4 comments June 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1867, a firing squad disabused a Habsburg heir of his pretensions to the throne of Mexico.

A little bit loopy, a little bit liberal, and fatally short of common sense, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph* decamped from the easy life at his still-under-construction dream palace outside Trieste for an exalted title that really meant playing catspaw for Napoleon III‘s Mexican land grab.

(To assuage the pangs of imperial adventurism upon our tender-headed hero, Maximilian had been “invited” to assume the Mexican throne by a convention handpicked to do just that.)

There the puppet emperor with the silver spoon in his mouth found himself pitted in civil war against the Amerindian peasant from the school of hard knocks: Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s great liberal statesmen.

As the tide turned in favor of Juarez and the liberals, and Napoleon’s attention increasingly fixated on problems closer to home, the French threw in the towel.

But Maximilian had too much honor or too little sense to heed his patron’s advice to get out while the getting was good; sticking it out with “his people,” he was captured in May, 1867.

Juarez desiring to give any future bored European nobles second thoughts about New World filibustering, Maximilian got no quarter.**

While Louis Napoleon emceed a world’s fair on the other side of the planet, Maximilian was shot with two of his generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia.


Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, showing an obvious compositional debt to Goya’s Executions of the Third of May. Further analysis: written English; video Spanish.

Maximilian’s widow Charlotte — “Carlota”, when trying to blend with her adoptive subjects — descended into a long-lived madness back in the Old World, but was rumored to have borne with one of Maximilian’s French officers an illegitimate child who would go on to become an infamous Vichy collaborator.

Books about Emperor Maximilian

This sensational affair attracted plenty of coverage in the ensuing years; as a result, there is a good deal of topical material from near-contemporaries now in the public domain. Maximilian in Mexico: A Woman’s Reminisces of the French Intervention 1862-1867 (Gutenberg | Google Books) is a zippy read.

* Brother to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

** Spanish trial records are here. European appeals for clemency poured in, but Maximilian had doomed himself with the “Black Decree” of 1865, ordering summary executions of captured Republicans.

The time for indulgence has gone by: it would only encourage the despotism of bands of incendiaries, of thieves, of highwaymen, and of murderers of old men and defenseless women.

The government, strong in its power, will henceforth be inflexible in meting out punishment when the laws of civilization, humanity, or morality demand it.

Juarez answered the clemency appeal of Princess Salm-Salm with solemn words:

If all the Kings and Queens in Europe [pled for Maximilian] I could not spare that life. It is not I who take it; it is the people and the law, and if I should not do their will the people would take it and mine also.

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1849: Lajos Batthyány and the 13 Martyrs of Arad

8 comments October 6th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1849, the shining lights of Hungary’s 1848 revolution met the Austrian Empire’s firing squadsexecutioners. (Correction: Most were hanged, not shot. See comments.)

Probably no polity in Europe stood more fundamentally in danger from the wave of 1848 revolutions than the Habsburg Empire. While governments would be overthrown and power renegotiated across the continent, the Austrian state’s dynastically welded hodgepodge of mingled ethnicities appeared existentially at odds with the nationalist stirrings afoot.

And none of those ethnicities answering to Vienna stirred as vigorously as the Hungarians.

The Hungarian Diet established a national government under Lajos Batthyány (English Wikipedia page | Hungarian) (or Louis Batthyani) in the spring of 1848* and soon pushed for more self-determination than Austria was prepared to countenance.

When Austrian troops turned on Hungary, the aspiring nation issued an 1849 declaration of independence full of vituperation for the ancient noble line.

[T]he house of Hapsburg-Lorraine, as perjured in the sight of God and man, has forfeited its right to the Hungarian throne …

Three hundred years have passed since the Hungarian nation, by free election, placed the house of Austria upon its throne, in accordance with stipulations made on both sides, and ratified by treaty. These three hundred years have been, for the country, a period of uninterrupted suffering.

This dynasty … which can at no epoch point to a ruler who based his power on the freedom of the people, adopted a course toward this nation from father to son, which deserves the appellation of perjury.

The house of Austria has publicly used every effort to deprive the country of its legitimate independence and constitution, designing to reduce it to a level with the other provinces long since deprived of all freedom, and to unite all in a common link of slavery.

Guess how that turned out.

Lajos Batthyany portrait by Hungarian painter Miklos Barabas.

It wasn’t much of a contest in the field, leaving this day’s doings the shooting of Batthyany at Pest (the city later merged with Buda and Obuda to form Budapest) and 13 Hungarian generals — the so-called 13 martyrs of Arad — in a Translyvanian city that is today part of Romania.

This was not, however, the last the Habsburg dynasty would hear of Hungary’s frustrated national aspirations.

Three years later, a Hungarian nationalist attempted to assassinate the youthful Emperor Franz Joseph,** and the strength of the Magyar lands’ self-determination movements would eventually drive a formal ratification of Hungarian privileges that rechristened the state as the Austro-Hungarian Empire, or simply Austria-Hungary.

All that stuff we said about you Habsburgs? Bygones.

While becoming half of a dual capital opposite Vienna meant a late 19th-century renaissance for Budapest, this cure by the Empire for its internal pressures proved almost as harmful as the disease. The pressures immediately discharged would pale in comparison to the conflicts Hungarians’ now-privileged status helped provoke with Slavs and other ethnic minorities (exacerbated by Hungarians’ ability to block Austrian foreign policy). In an early preview of a now-familiar pattern, the proto-nation-state of Hungary was a nastier piece of work for its ethnic minorities than the decadent old melting-pot ruled from Vienna … and the road from this day’s executions to the Austro-Hungarian Compromise ran straight on to 1914 Sarajevo and the graveyard of Habsburg history.

As for the executions this day, Batthyany was saluted by the great Hungarian composer Franz Liszt in his Funerailles:

More prosaically and much more pervasively, a legend that Austrians were jovially toasting the death of the 13 Martyrs as they were being executed translated into a still-active tradition against clinking beer glasses in Hungary.


The Martyrs of Arad (Sixth of October) by Janos Thorma

* Hungary’s March 15 National Day derives from this period.

** Franz Joseph was no mere abstract emblem of imperial absolutism: he had assumed the Austrian throne in December 1848 upon the abdication of his feebleminded uncle specifically to free the crown from the oaths his predecessor had taken to various reforms. From the Hungarian perspective — and the declaration excerpted above dwells at length on the perfidy of this maneuver — he was installed to crush the revolution.

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1853: János Libényi, who stabbed an emperor and built a church

6 comments February 26th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1853, eight days after attempting to assassinate Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph I, Hungarian nationalist János Libényi was hanged on Vienna’s Simmeringer Haide (the link is in German).

Libenyi was hardly the only one who designed on the life of one of the world’s longest-serving rulers of one of the world’s least cohesive polities. On February 18, Libenyi stabbed the emperor in the neck — a part of the anatomy fortuitously protected by a very sturdy military collar the (at this time) 23-year-old monarch wore habitually.

The would-be assassin was immediately subdued by an Irish count and a nearby butcher, both of whom received Austrian ennoblement for their trouble.

An emotive outpouring of official thanksgiving commensurate with an age of political reaction greeted Franz’s survival. His brother — yet many years and many miles from his own rendezvous with the executioner — took up donations for Vienna’s spectacular Votivkirche, a literal votive offering to God for Franz Joseph’s deliverance:

Image via flickr, (cc) lionscavern.com.

The future Elvis of the Austrian waltz scene, Johann Strauss, then a 27-year-old cranking out career-enhancing patriotic fare, said symphonically what the Votivkirche said architecturally with this “Rescue Jubilation March” (op. 126):

[audio:Rettungs_Jubel_Marsch.mp3]

This short entry on the German wikipedia — in German, of course — further outlines the affair.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Austria,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,Notable for their Victims,Treason

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1882: Guglielmo Oberdan

4 comments December 20th, 2007 Headsman

On this date in 1882, Italian nationalist Guglielmo Oberdan was hanged for attempting to assassinate Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

“I will throw my corpse between the emperor and Italy and Italian youth will at least have an example.” (quote)

A native of Trieste, a melting pot of Italian and Slovenian ethnicities, Oberdan was of mixed parentage but identified with an Italy coming of age just as he himself did.

Trieste was a treasured Habsburg jewel, the empire’s most consequential port. So Franz Joseph’s visit to celebrate the city’s 500th anniversary under the Austrian crown was undertaken with no less heartfelt sincerity than the enthusiastic student had in packing a suitcase full of explosives in greeting.

Police intercepted this memorable gift and young Oberdan as well, and in short order he swung from the gallows — thousands of worldwide petitioners, Victor Hugo among them, notwithstanding — still urging cocksure verses of national redemption.

As a handsome young martyr who had chosen his Italian identity, Oberdan’s name and face became fare for boulevards, piazzas and monuments … doubly so for the boy’s dispatch contemporaneous with Italy’s cynical Triple Alliance pact with Austria-Hungary that sternly apprenticed the infant nation’s irredentist spirit to realpolitik under the sway of the man now reviled as the “Emperor of the Hangmen.” Nor would it appear a fate unworthy of his deed that he should personify in death all the impulsive romanticism his country had not strength enough to effect.

Oberdan is the subject of a rousing (and murderous — the refrain is “Morte a Franz, viva Oberdan!”) patriotic song dating from the 1880’s:

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Assassins,Austria,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Habsburg Realm,Hanged,History,Italy,Martyrs,Murder,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Separatists,Treason

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