1931: Bhagat Singh

2 comments March 23rd, 2012 Headsman

I am full of ambition and hope and of full charm of life. But I can renounce all at the time of need, and that is the real sacrifice. These things can never be hinderance in the way of man, provided he be a man. You will have the practical proof in the near future.

-Bhagat Singh

On this date in 1931,* India revolutionary Bhagat Singh was hanged by the British in Lahore, together with Shivaram Rajguru and Sukhdev Thapar. The hanging was surreptitiously done, on the evening before it was officially scheduled, with the men’s cremated ashes scattered into the nearby Satluj River.


Statue of the three March 23 martyrs near Amritsar, Punjab, close to the Pakistani border. (cc) image from Alicia Nijdam.

Though only 23 years of age when he hanged, Singh’s renown as a nationalist freedom-fighter was already considerable. It has not lessened in the intervening decades.

The teenage Singh had participated in Gandhi‘s nonviolent Non-Cooperation Movement, but violent British suppression of independence demonstrations soon had Singh looking for a more energetic response.

Till that time I was only a romantic revolutionary, just a follower of our leaders. Then came the time to shoulder the whole responsibility. … I began to study in a serious manner. My previous beliefs and convictions underwent a radical change. The romance of militancy dominated our predecessors; now serious ideas ousted this way of thinking. No more mysticism! No more blind faith! Now realism was our mode of thinking.

-Singh, from “Why I am an atheist”

Singh issued his definitive reply to British violence in 1929 by exploding a couple of bombs in the subcontinent’s legislative building.**

“It takes a loud noise to make the deaf hear,” read their leaflet, vindicating the (non-lethal) ordnance.

Singh’s arrest, along with a fellow bomb-tosser, was an intended consequence, but the official pursuit of the case against him also led back to Singh’s fellow-revolutionaries and bomb-manufacturers. Some of these were induced to inculpate Singh, Rajguru, and Thapar to the theretofore-unsolved murder of Lahore policeman John Saunders in December 28.

Saunders had been mistakenly assassinated: Singh et al took him for John Scott, a police superintendent who ordered a baton charge against protesters and personally helped beat to death one of the independence movement’s revered fathers.

While the law wrapped its coils about him, Singh led a successful hunger strike for better prison conditions, and kept churning out writing.

His example of sacrificial revolutionary ardor — not to mention his leftist politics — kept him a popular martyr figure for years after his death, all the way down to the present day.


Climactic execution scene from the 2002 Hindi flm The Legend of Bhagat Singh — one of many different cinematic adaptations of his story.

The Shaheedi Mela (Martyrdom Fair) is observed across Punjab each March 23 in honor of these men.

* Not on Valentine’s Day, as a 2011 Twitter hoax claimed.

** Shades of Auguste Vaillant.

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1415: Jan Hus, reformer of religion and language

4 comments July 6th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1415, Czech theologian Jan Hus was burned at the stake at Konstanz for heresy.

This statue of Jan Hus in Prague’s Old Town is a tourist magnet. image (cc) autumnal fire

Hus might be the most consequential pre-Lutheran Christian religious reformer, and the Hussite faith he founded still persists to this day.

In his own time, Hus expounded a reformist theology inspired by John Wycliffe, and putting Holy Writ into the vernacular was essential to his program. His religious movement found common cause with a Bohemian political interest in exploiting western Christendom’s clown carful of rival popes to stake out greater national independence.

He eventually met his martyrdom by agreeing to come to the Council of Konstanz (Constance) under a guarantee of safe conduct, where prelates were going to sort out their rival popes and do the periodic Church reform thing.

Instead, Hus was seized and imprisoned — you don’t have to keep promises to heretics, see; it’s all a part of this noble era’s expediently plastic sense of honor — and tried and condemned and implored to recant and finally burned alive.*

But the disobedient movements Hus had kindled in life were not so easily reduced to ash.

In the aftermath of the great ecclesiastic’s execution, a significant conflict erupted in Bohemia. For a generation or so of the Hussite Wars, the man’s followers repelled Catholic incursions before they too finally succumbed.

Even then, it wasn’t over (and still isn’t). Though it wasn’t all specifically about the guy named Jan Hus — these things never are — the Catholic powers that be were still fighting and propagandizing against Hus centuries later, into the Counter-Reformation.

Today, the statue of Jan Hus that everyone flocks to see in Prague’s Old Town Square is flanked by a Catholic church on one side … and a Catholic church that’s become a Hussite church on another.


Since all of the above and a great deal more about Hus and Hussites is readily available at the search engine of your choice, we thought — after the above introduction — to redirect our conversation to a dimension of Jan Hus less widely recognized: his foundational role in the development of the modern written Czech language, and especially its use of diacritics. Hus is generally credited as the creator of the haček or caron.

Thanks to friend of the blog Sonechka for helping ferret out this excerpt, from the chapter on Czech by Robert Auty in The Slavic Literary Languages: Formation and Development, ed. Alexander M. Schenker and Edward Stankiewicz, Yale: 1980.

The religious reform movement associated with the name of Jan Hus (1371-1415) had important consequences for the Czech literary language. Knowledge of the Bible was an important element in the reform program of Hus and his followers: the Bible was to be made available to the people in their own language and priests had to be able to expound it in a clear and straightforward manner … The establishment and continuous polishing and revision of the scriptural text played a great part in the development of the written Czech vernacular. Moreover the Czech translation profoundly influenced the earliest Polish versions of the Bible.

Hus’s own views on the language emerge not only from his practice but also from various theoretical utteranes on the subject. It has been shown that in morphology and vocabulary he tried to modernize the language in accordance with the development of natural speech. In phonology however he took up a more conservative position … Hus was also critical of another element of contemporary Prague speech, the proliferation of Germanisms in the vocabulary. In this he took up a position similar to that of many of his countrymen four or five centuries later and castigated those who said handtuch (Ger. Handtuch) for ubrusec ‘towel,’ šorc (Ger. Schurz) for zástěrka ‘apron,’ trepky (Ger. Treppen) for chódy ‘steps,’ knedlík (Ger. Knödel) for šiška ‘dumpling’ and the like. It is interesting to note that many of the Germanisms to which Hus objected have in fact disappeared from the language; yet others have resisted; knedlík, for example, has become fully domesticated.


A Czech knedlík by any other name would still taste as chutný. (cc) image from Michal Sänger.

It is in all probability to Hus that we must ascribe the establishment of the orthography of modern Czech, for this is essentially based on the diacritic system expounded in the treatise known as De orthographia bohemica. Written at the beginning of the fifteenth century, the tract, though it cannot with absolute certainty be ascribed to Hus, is nevertheless held by the great majority of scholars to be his work. …

The revolutionary innovation advocated in De orthographia bohemica was the introduction of the diacritic system, that is to say the extension of the repertory of graphemes by the user of superscript marks. For the consonants the principle adopted was to use the unmarked Latin letters for sounds which (in the contemporary pronunciation) were identical in Latin and Czech, but to indicate specifically Czech sounds by means of a superscript dot over the letter concerned. Thus … č, š, ž, ř … [which] indicated not palatal articulation but non-Latin-ness. …

It seems most probably that he was influenced by the Hebrew practice of indicating by a dot (dageš) variant phonetic realizations of the same grapheme. We know that Hus learned some Hebrew, and this would seem the most obvious source of this orthographic device. …

The diacritic orthography was not immediately accepted, despite the fact that a handful of early fifteenth-century manuscripts employed it. It gained ground in the later fifteenth and especially in the sixteenth century and became adopted as the standard. With the advent of printing in the late fifteenth century the Gothic (black-letter) form of the Latin alphabet was used for Czech books as it was for German. When the forms of the letters were standardized Hus’s lozenge-shaped dot was changed to the ‘hook’ (haček) which lives on as the reversed circumflex of the present-day Czech alphabet. The indication of vowel length, originally similar to a comma, was systematized as an acute accent (referred to in Czech as &#269árka) …

By the time the Hussite wars ended in the 1430’s the Czech language was in use in most spheres of national life. It was established as a medium of administrative and legal documents, and it was increasingly used for learned and technical writings … When we consider that the relative uniformity of the phonological and morphological structure of the language remained unimpaired, and that its orthography was in the process of consolidation, we can establish the mid-fifteenth century as the period of origin of the Czech literary language as a normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom.

Czechs and their normalized, polyvalent, nationally recognized idiom get a public holiday and all the hačeks they can drink in Jan Hus’s honor today.

* Just to make sure everyone got the point, this same council ordered the remains of the long-deceased Wycliffe exhumed and posthumously “executed”.

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Unspecified Year: The Robbers of Nordenshaw

1 comment December 24th, 2010 Headsman

This Yule, we present an ancient Danish ballad which “is probably too true a picture of the lawless conduct of men of the highest rank, and of a state of things not confined at that period to the islands of Denmark.”

The Robbers at Nordenshaw

The Robbers lurking at Nordenshaw*
From out the green-wood creep,
And march by night to the farmer’s house,
Their Yule with him to keep.**

They’ve march’d away to the farmer’s house
With each in hand a spear;
“Come, cousin, see, we are kith and kin,
“Tap us thy Christmas beer.

“And, farmer, lodge us all tonight,
“And well with liquor ply,
“And with us leave thy pretty wife,
“Or, farmer, thou shalt die.”

“I’ll freely pour my mead and ale,
“And well I’ll serve you too;
“But, Sirs, by all that’s good above,
“No outrage on us do.

“Now if upon my house ye seize,
“And lord it at your will,
“And if ye put my wife to shame,
“That were outrageous ill.”

Some on the table threw their swords,
Some cloaks of fur so fine,
Some bade the honest farmer’s wife
Bring in the beer and wine.

A cloth of woven silk she took,
And over the table spread;
And there her ale and wine they drank,
And ate her meat and bread.

A cautious wife was Oaselille,
And used her words with care;
She rose and told the robber guests
She would their beds prepare.

No thought had she, good Oaselille,
With them to share her bed;
But left them feasting, and for help
Through the dark forest sped.

With hurried step through bush and field
Ran on the lusty dame,
And after four long weary miles
To Drost Sir Peter’s† came.

She reach’d Sir Peter’s courtyard gate,
Drew on her mantle blue,
And boldly up to the upper room,
Sir Peter’s chamber, flew.

“Wake up, Drost Peter Hoseale, wake,
“No moment longer sleep;
“The thieves, that lurk’d at Nordenshaw,
“With us their Christmas keep.

“What! still, Sir Peter, slumbering on
“Nor yet but half awake?
“Those robbers twelve are at the Grange,
“All twelve are now to take.”

Then rose the Drost and call’d his men,
And bade them all to arm;
“Wake up, my men, there’s come tonight
“Good news from yonder farm.

“Wake up, no moment more delay,
“And d’on your trusty mail;
“For Nilus Ufridson is there,
And not the man to quail.”

“Where,” ask’d those sturdy robbers twelve,
They’d drunk of ale so deep,
“Where’s now the farmer’s pretty wife?
“We’ll have her here to sleep.”

“Chide not, good Sirs, a short delay”
The grey-coat farmer said;
“She is even now to the chamber gone
“To make her guests their bed.”

The farmer out of his window look’d,
And saw the Drost’s array;
“There stop here thirty men at arms,
“Are dress’d like cushats gray.”

Then answer’d Nilus Ufridson,
“Of such I’m not afraid,
“If but my comrades stand as firm,
“And faithful prove my blade.”

“No,” answer’d Lave Rimordson,
“And scann’d the troop afield,
“For such men care we not a bean,
“To them we’ll never yield.”

They beat the door with sword and spear
And rais’d a fearful shout;
“Up up, Sir Nilus Ufridson!
“Thy gang and thou come out.”

“Seven tons of gold I’ll give thee, Drost,
“And silver other five,
“To let us hence in peace depart
“My men and me alive.”

“Thy silver, Nilus, heed I not,
“As little heed thy gold;
“Through thee weeps many an orphan child
“For friends beneath the mould.”

Hard fought Sir Nilus Ufridson,
And well he kept his ground,
And heavy were from bar and beam
The blows he dealt around.

Nor less did Lave Rimordson,
But fought with might and main
Till at the hilt by dint of blows
He broke his sword in twain.

He dash’d the hilt against a stone,
The blade stuck in the mould;
“And now, my only chance of life,
“I’ll try good words and gold.

“Drost Peter Hoseale, spare my life,
“And do me no disgrace;
“I’m near of kin to the Danish Queen
“And of an Emperor’s race.”

“If near of kin to the Queen thou art,
“And all so nobly born,
“Why to the Farmer’s didst thou go,
“And treat his rights with scorn?”

So seized Sir Peter all the twelve,
And townward march’d them off;
And set them side by side on poles,
The people’s jest and scoff.

And there they lie on rack and wheel
To bear the heat and cold;
But to the King the Drost has brought
Twelve heavy chests of gold.

* Located on the Danish island of Fyen, Fyn, or Funen.

** The Danish Jul runs all through December up to Christmas Eve, Dec. 24; that date, Christmas Eve, is the big Yule celebration in Denmark.

† I situate this execution in the 13th century based on Drost Peter’s appearance in this historical romance of Danish King Erik VI Menved‘s youth.

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1659: The first two Boston Martyrs

5 comments October 27th, 2010 Headsman

October 27 is International Religious Freedom Day, dating to the execution this date in 1659 of Quakers Marmaduke Stephenson and William Robinson on Boston Commons. They were two of the four Boston Martyrs, Quakers whose necks were stretched in Massachusetts for failing to either keep quiet or stay out of town.

(Fellow Quaker Mary Dyer, perhaps the more famous martyr, was led out to execution with Stephenson and Robinson but reprieved at the last moment. Her time was still some months away.)

As Puritans had fled C-of-E persecution earlier in the 17th century, Quakers migrated to the New World with Cromwell‘s Puritan ascendancy.

And in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the old dissidence had become the new orthodoxy — as described by the (obviously partisan) Horatio Rogers. (Via)

In June, 1659, William Robinson, a merchant of London, and Marmaduke Stephenson, a countryman of the east pan of Yorkshire, “were moved by the Lord,” in Quaker phrase, to go from Rhode Island to Massachusetts to bear witness against the persecuting spirit existing there; and with them went Nicholas Davis of Plymouth Colony, and Patience Scott of Providence, Rhode Island, a girl of about eleven years of age … During their incarceration Mary Dyer was moved of the Lord to go from Rhode Island to visit the prisoners, and she too was arrested and imprisoned. On September 12, 1659, the Court banished the four adults from Massachusetts upon pain of death

… On October 8, within thirty days of her banishment, Mary Dyer with other Rhode Island Quakers went to Boston, …where she was again arrested and held for the action of the authorities. Five days later William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, who had been travelling about spreading their doctrines through Massachusetts and Rhode Island since their release from prison, also went to Boston to look the bloody laws in the face, in the words of the Quaker chronicler; and they too were arrested and cast into prison. …

The issue was now clearly made between Quaker and Puritan. The Quaker defied the unjust Puritan laws, and dared martyrdom. Dare the Puritan authorities inflict it?

On October 19 the three prisoners were brought before Governor Endicott and the Assistants, and demand having been made of them — Why they came again into that jurisdiction after having been banished from it upon pain of death if they returned? — they severally declared that the cause of their coming was of the Lord and in obedience to him. The next day they were again brought before the magistrates, when the Governor called to the keeper of the prison to pull off their hats, which having been done, he addressed them substantially as follows: “We have made many laws and endeavored in several ways to keep you from among us, but neither whipping nor imprisonment, nor cutting off ears, nor banishment upon pain of death, will keep you from among us. We desire not your death.” Notwithstanding which, he immediately added: “Hearken now to your sentence of death.” … When the Governor ceased speaking, however, Stephenson lifted up his voice in this wise: “Give ear, ye magistrates, and all who are guilty, for this the Lord hath said concerning you, who will perform this promise upon you, that the same day that you put his servants to death shall the day of your visitation pass over your heads, and you shall be cursed forevermore, the Lord of Hosts hath spoken it; therefore in love to you all take warning before it be too late, that so the curse might be removed; for assuredly if you put us to death, you will bring innocent blood upon your own heads, and swift destruction will come upon you.” …

Great influence was brought to bear to prevent the execution of the sentences. Governor Winthrop of Connecticut appeared before the Massachusetts authorities, urging that the condemned be not put to death. He said that he would beg it of them on his bare knees that they would not do it. … Governor Endicott, the Rev. John Wilson, and the whole pack of persecutors, however, seemed to thirst for blood; and it was determined that somebody must die.

The 27th of October, 1659, was fixed for the triple execution and elaborate preparations, for those days, were made for it. Popular excitement ran high, and the people resorted to the prison windows to hold communication with the condemned, so male prisoners were put in irons, and a force was detailed, in words of the order, “to watch with great care the towne, especially the prison.”…

The eventful day having arrived, Captain Oliver and his military guard attended to receive the prisoners. The marshal and the jailer brought them forth, the men from the jail, and Mary Dyer from the House of Correction. They parted from their friends at the prison full of joy, thanking the Lord that he accounted them worthy to suffer for his name and had kept them faithful to the end. The condemned came forth hand in hand, Mary Dyer between the other two, and when the marshal asked, “Whether she was not ashamed to walk hand in hand between two young men,” for her companions were much younger than she, she replied, “It is an hour of the greatest joy I can enjoy in this world. No eye can see, no ear can hear, no tongue can speak, no heart can understand, the sweet incomes and refreshings of the spirit of the Lord which now I enjoy.” The concourse of people was immense, the guard was strong and strict, and when the prisoners sought to speak the drums were caused to be beaten.

The method of execution was extremely simple in those days. A great elm upon Boston Common constituted the gallows. The halter having been adjusted round the prisoner’s neck, he was forced to ascend a ladder affording an approach to the limb to be used for the fatal purpose, to which limb the other end of the halter was attached. Then the ladder was pulled away, and the execution, though rude, was complete.

The prisoners took a tender leave of one another, and William Robinson, who was the first to suffer, said, as he was about to be turned off by the executioner, ‘I suffer for Christ, in whom I lived, and for whom I will die.” Marmaduke Stephenson came next, and, being on the ladder, he said to the people, “Be it known unto all this day, that we suffer not as evil-doers, but for conscience sake.”

Next came Mary Dyer’s turn. Expecting immediate death, she had been forced to wait at the foot of the fatal tree, with a rope about her neck, and witness the violent taking off of her friends. With their lifeless bodies hanging before her, she was made ready to be suspended beside them. Her arms and legs were bound, and her skirts secured about her feet; her face was covered with a handkerchief which the Rev. Mr. Wilson, who had been her pastor when she lived in Boston, had loaned the hangman. And there, made ready for death, with the halter round her neck, she stood upon the fatal ladder in calm serenity, expecting to die….

Just then an order for a reprieve, upon the petition of her son all unknown to her, arrives. The halter is loosed from her neck and she is unbound and told to come down the ladder. She neither answered nor moved. In the words of the Quaker chronicler, “she was waiting on the Lord to know his pleasure in so sudden a change, having given herself up to dye.” The people cried, “Pull her down.” So earnest were they that she tried to prevail upon them to wait a little whilst she might consider and know of the Lord what to do. The people were pulling her and the ladder down together, when they were stopped, and the marshal took her down in his arms, and she was carried back to prison. . .

It was a mere prearranged scheme, for before she set forth from the prison it had been determined that she was not to be executed, as shown by the reprieve itself, which reads as follows: “Whereas Mary Dyer is condemned by the Generall Court to be executed for hir offences, on the petition of William Dier, hir sonne, it is ordered that the sajd Mary Dyer shall have liberty for forty-eight howers after this day to depart out of this jurisdiction, after which time, being found therein, she is forthwith to be executed, and in the meane time that she be kept a close prisoner till hir sonne or some other be ready to carry hir away within the aforesajd tyme; and it is further ordered, that she shall he carrjed to the place of execution, and there to stand upon the gallowes, with a rope about her necke, till the rest be executed, and then to returne to the prison and remajne as aforesaid.

Mary Dyer once again returned from exile the following year, and was hanged in June 1660.

The hours were numbered, however, for New England Puritans in their most cartoonishly obnoxious form. Upon the restoration of the monarchy in the mother country, an edict forbidding the death penalty for Quakerism closed the doors to the Boston Martyrs club.

An Account of the Sufferings of Marmaduke Stephenson is available free on Google books.

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1622: Not quite Squanto (Tisquantum), Pilgrim befriender

Add comment May 31st, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1622, or very close to it, the Patuxet Native American Tisquantum (better known as Squanto) was about to be yielded by Plymouth Colony Governor William Bradford to Wampanoag chief Massasoit for immediate execution … when the unannounced appearance of a strange ship fortuitously saved him.

Squanto is most famous as the Indian godsend who saved the Mayflower Pilgrims at the Plymouth Bay colony from starvation by teaching those pious wayfarers how to live off the land in the New World.

In that capacity, he made possible (and participated in) the “First Thanksgiving” harvest gorger in 1621 that figures as the antecedent of the modern American holiday. Our day’s principal has therefore been portrayed on the stage by generations of schoolchildren from Cape Cod Bay to California.

But this was only the tail end of one of the most remarkable lives in history.


Photo of Tisquantum bust by N. Ayad of Cupids Cove Chatter. Photo was taken courtesy of the Pilgrim Hall Museum, Plymouth, MA, United States.

As a youth, Squanto was kidnapped from his native soil by English explorer George Weymouth, who sold him into slavery in Europe. Squanto wound up in London in some sort of forced-labor capacity, before hitching a ride back to the Americas with Captain John Smith — the Pocahontas guy.

It was thanks to this improbable abduction and return trip that Squanto was available to materialize out of the woods, speaking the Queen’s English on this alien continent, in the nick of time to save the Plymouth immigrants from disaster.**

This is the author of Squanto And The Miracle Of Thanksgiving.

However, because Squanto was a real person and not a Disney character, he began exploiting his privileged intermediary position for his own advantage.

According to Plymouth Gov. William Bradford’s chronicle Of Plymouth Plantation,

Squanto sought his own ends and played his own game, by putting the Indians in fear and drawing gifts from them to enrich himself, making them believe he could stir up war against whom he would, and make peace for whom he would. Yea, he made them believe they kept the plague buried in the ground, and could send it amongst whom they would, which did much terrify the Indians and made them depend more on him, and seek more to him, than to Massasoit. Which procured him envy and had like to have cost him his life; for after the discovery of his practices, Massasoit sought it both privately and openly, which caused him to stick close to the English, and never durst go from them till he died.

Seeking Squanto’s life both privately and openly, Massasoit sent messengers to the Plymouth colony requesting the Machiavellian diplomat’s return in accordance with the colony’s treaty arrangements with the Wampanoag.

Bradford ducked and dilated, not wanting to give up this valuable asset, but the precarious colony also needed the amity of its Indian neighbors.

Massasoit remained insistent, according to the account of Edward Winslow,

entreating [Bradford] to give way to the death of Tisquantum who had so much abused him … [Massasoit] sent his own knife and [two messengers] therewith to cut off his head and hands and bring them to him

Bradford was on the point of yielding to this demand when a strange boat appeared unannounced — and the guv hit the “pause” button on everything.

he would first know what boat that was ere he would deliver him into their custody (not knowing whether there was a combination of French and Indians). Mad with rage and impatient at delay the messengers departed in great heat.

The delay turned out to be permanent … which for Squanto was only a few more months before he caught ill† and died later in 1622.

The ship that quite unknowingly bought Squanto this extra purchase on life had nothing at all to do with the drama unfolding between Bradford and Massasoit: it was the Sparrow, the advance party of the coming Wessagusset (or Weymouth) colony which would plant itself adjacent to the Plymouth settlers and completely crash and burn.

And the Pilgrims and the Indians lived happily ever after.

* This site asserts May 31 was the date that the Sparrow came ashore at Plymouth. Most sites are slightly less specific, noting only that the ship arrived in very late May.

** Among Squanto’s good deeds for the fledgling colony was tracking down a boy who got lost in the wilderness. The boy was John Billington, the eponymous son of the first man hanged in the Plymouth Colony.

† Some suspect that Squanto’s “illness” wasn’t so accidental, and the frustrated Wampanoag chief simply dispensed with the diplomatic rigmarole and poisoned him off.

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Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews

25 comments April 2nd, 2010 Jeffrey Fisher

Images of the Crucifixion









(Thanks to Jeffrey Fisher [jeffreyfisher at me.com] for the guest post.)

On Good Friday every year,* Christians around the world commemorate the death by crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, rabbi, prophet, Son of God, Son of Man, messiah, and all-around trouble-maker.

The truth is that very little is known of Jesus’ life and teachings from verifiable accounts, but this has not stopped generation after generation of Christians from telling his story, beginning with Jesus’ semi-official biographers, the evangelists of the New Testament. Almost everything we know about the life and teachings of the physical human being Jesus are in those writings, which do not portray him always in compatible ways, and which are almost entirely unconfirmed by any external source. The Roman historian Tacitus mentions (with disdain if not disgust) Jesus’ cult following, as does the Jewish historian and philosopher Josephus, but neither gives us anything to work with as historians (or, for that matter, as theologians). For the record, Suetonius and Pliny also talk about Christians, but these piecemeal sources tell us much more about Roman perceptions of Christians than about Christ and his teachings, or even necessarily Christian beliefs and practices.

What, then, can we reasonably say about Jesus?

It is almost impossible to find universal agreement around anything more than a few basics, including most importantly Jesus’ crucifixion. The Gospels narrate it; Paul the Apostle (who never met Jesus in the flesh, as it were) hangs his theology on it, together with the equally important resurrection; and no contemporary sources (Christian or otherwise) dispute it.

But it’s when we ask why Jesus was crucified that things start to get interesting.

What did he do? The two men he is traditionally said to have been crucified with are commonly understood to be “robbers,” but that they were common criminals is highly unlikely. Crucifixion is a horrible death designed to make a very public statement about the crucified, the sort of thing you use on gladiator-slave rebels like Spartacus, not on pickpockets and roustabouts. The Greek term used for these two men (lestai) is consistent with the description of the released Barabbas as one who had participated in rebellious activities, whose “criminality” was related to his revolutionary business. Moreover, the name “Barabbas” means literally “son of the father,” a purely symbolic and surely entirely fictional name, and that the people choose to have him released indicates their affinity for him as a thorn in the side of the Romans. He is thus contrasted with Jesus, the other son of the father, the peaceful (apocalyptic) revolutionary.

So Jesus would have been crucified as a political criminal, a rebel. This would make sense of accounts of his having been identified by the Romans as “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”: “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Anyone claiming to be king (and “son of God” was a Jewish way of talking about the king of Israel recorded clearly in Psalm 2), would, if taken seriously, be understood as challenging Roman authority.

Insofar as Jesus seems to have been deliberately poking the Romans’ local running dogs, the Sadducees and the Temple priests, his seizure and termination were surely inevitable. If his teaching is as opposed to violence and unconcerned with “politics” as it seems to have been, it’s hard to believe the Romans would have noticed him without some prodding, this coming not from the “crowd,” but from the leadership (who in Mark and Matthew incite the crowd). Indeed, the priests and scribes look for ways to arrest him when the crowds are not around, because they fear a riot.

If we take the Gospel of Mark at all seriously, Jesus was preaching a new kingdom of God, an apocalyptic redemption of the people of the earth by God’s direct intervention (and with Jesus as the sacrificial pesach lamb). If we take the Gospel of Luke seriously, Jesus spoke in a classic prophetic mode, calling people — Jew and Gentile both — to care for the oppressed of the earth, the poor and the hungry and the helpless. Both Jesuses called for people to be better to each other, to love each other, and indeed to love each other when love was, according to common sense, the foolish thing.

Why would this get you executed?

Well, in itself, it wouldn’t. But the Gospel of Mark tells us of Jesus speaking with a man who realizes that all the animal sacrifices in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans (in that crazy world). When love counts more than sacrifice, we are undermining the Temple. When we go into the Temple, start knocking things over, and say it’s become about robbing the poor and not about loving God and one’s neighbor, we are undermining the Temple. And to undermine the Temple’s authority is also to undermine Rome’s authority, and Rome’s cash flow.

Jesus, like the Essenes he may or may not have associated with, was a purist.

The Temple was full of collaborators and exploiters, the kind seen before in the history of Israel (and berated by prophets like Isaiah and Amos), the kind hated also by the Dead Sea community of apocalyptic purists awaiting a final showdown between God and evil (i.e., the Roman Empire and their local potentates, the Temple authorities).

Jesus, like other Jewish prophets before him, thought that Judaism was about something. That it was somehow about justice and not just about following rules or waiting around for things to get better: that it was about our making the world a better place, and not just making our own lives better.

Start talking that way and get people on your side, and you’re fairly likely to get killed, even twenty centuries later.

* Though the actual date (even the year) of the execution marked by the movable feast of Good Friday is fundamentally unknowable, there are some present-day astronomer types who’d like to sell you April 3, 33 A.D.

On this day..

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1971: Martyred Intellectuals’ Day in Bangladesh

3 comments December 14th, 2009 Headsman

This date’s observance marks the systematic execution by (West) Pakistani forces of the intellectual class of East Pakistan at the end of the civil war which would detach the east as the independent nation Bangladesh — an unavenged war crime as cynical as it was brutal.


Executed intellectuals in the Dhaka Rayerbazar, 1971.

This was not a single discrete massacre, but a continuing policy during the March-December 1971 war. December 14, just two days before the Pakistani army surrendered, was the peak date of a dreadful endgame paroxysm that saw hundreds of scholars, teachers, lawyers, doctors, artists, writers, engineers, and the like rounded up and summarily executed in a bid to decapitate the new Bengali state’s intelligentsia.

Though the martyrs were subsequently venerated in Bangladesh, the higher-stakes regional geopolitics have always made effective redress a nonstarter.

Gorgeous pictures of another memorial.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Artists,Bangladesh,Borderline "Executions",Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Intellectuals,Lawyers,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Mature Content,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Pakistan,Popular Culture,Power,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1976: Lt. Col. Abu Taher

4 comments July 21st, 2009 Headsman

At 4 a.m. this date in Dhaka Central Prison, Lt. Col. Abu Taher was hanged for treason.

A series of coups in the mirrored-sunglasses era of military governance shook the young state of Bangladesh:

  • The autocratic Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was toppled by a revolt of junior officers on August 15, 1975;

  • Senior brass in turn felled the ruling junta on November 3, 1975, jailing powerful officer Ziaur Rahman;
  • A quick counter-coup of junior officers — also remembered as the “sepoy mutiny”* — mounted by leftist war hero Abu Taher on November 7 put Ziaur Rahman’s hand back on the helm of state.

While November 7 is still marked in Bangladesh as National Revolution and Solidarity Day, its author got short shrift from its beneficiary.**

Abu Taher, a retired officer and a hero of the 1971 Bangladesh Liberation War that had detached the former East Pakistan from Islamabad, had visions of social revolution. But three coups in as many months is the sort of thing to rattle the new big man, and Zia consolidated his own power by eliminating threats to both left and right political flanks.

A mere 17 days after doing that National Revolution and Solidarity thing, the guy with the mass movement (pdf) of armed men was arrested for treason. He faced a military tribunal the following year.

Taher scorned the charges against him, but of course the fix was in.

* An allusion to colonial history.

** However, Taher’s own date of martyrdom is also still marked by his posthumous partisans.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Bangladesh,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Power,Revolutionaries,Soldiers,Treason,Wrongful Executions

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1389: Saint Tsar Lazar, after the Battle of Kosovo

2 comments June 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date (by the Julian calendar then in use) in 1389, Stefan Lazar Hrebeljanovic — that’s Tsar Lazar to you — led the armies of Moravian Serbia against the expanding Ottoman Empire at the Battle of Kosovo.

The Serbs were defeated — thereby plunging, in the national mythology, into a half-millennium of Turkish domination. Lazar was supposedly* captured and beheaded.

For a generation, Lazar had firmed up his authority as the most significant Serbian autocrat outside the Ottoman orbit. The gravity of that orbit, however, grew more powerful with each passing year; soon, it would devour Byzantium.

Here in the 14th century, the Turkish expansion took on vassals in southeastern Europe. For a prince in the marches, a reckoning had to come due.

Of course, some Serbian lords and other Christian rulers were prepared to owe fealty to the Turks.

In the national epic poem The Battle of Kosovo, our day’s hero receives divine visitation charging him to choose between the treasures of earth and those of eternity, perhaps the author’s critique of European nobles who joined the infidel.

‘Lazar! Lazar! Tsar of noble family,
Which kingdom is it that you long for most?
Will you choose a heavenly crown today?
Or will you choose an earthly crown?
If you choose the earth then saddle horses,
Tighten girths- have your knights put on
Their swords and make a dawn attack against
The Turks: your enemy will be destroyed.
But if you choose the skies then build a church-
O, not of stone but out of silk and velvet-
Gather up your forces take the bread and wine,
For all shall perish, perish utterly,
And you, O Tsar, shall perish with them.”

Lazar built the church.

This particular battle grew into one of mythic importance in the national memory of Serbia: the sacred apogee of national honor, even the bulwark of Christendom upon which the Islamic wave broke.**

Its site, “Kosovo Polje” or the “Field of Blackbirds” near Pristina, is a monument to the Serbian and Orthodox cause; that it is located, as its name suggests, in the province forcibly detached from Belgrade by NATO during the Kosovo War makes it a politically touchy bit of topography. Nationalist outfits like the Tsar Lazar Guard are violently displeased with Albanians having say-so about the place.

Not surprisingly, the record of the time suggests less a Balkan Thermopylae than that old historical standby — shifting relationships of collaboration, resistance, and negotiated boundaries amid Ottoman advances and (sometimes) reverses.

Lazar’s own son and heir Stefan Lazarevic became an Ottoman ally; when the Ottomans were themselves invaded, he shifted his alliance to a different regional power, Hungary. His successor, Durad Brankovic, became estranged from that alliance and eventually fought against the Hungarians in the Second Battle of Kosovo … as an Ottoman vassal.†

Be that as it may, St. Vitus’ DayVidovdan in Serbo-Croatian — which is now observed on its Gregorian calendar date of June 28th, remains one of the most sacred days on the Serbian calendar (it’s also the feast day of Lazar, a saint in the Orthodox tradition).

Vidovdan obtained another layer of meaning in 1914, for it was June 28 that Yugoslav nationalists then under the heel of a Christian empire assassinated Austro-Hungarian Archduke Ferdinand and ignited the First World War.

* It’s the predominant version of legend but not a settled historical fact that Lazar was actually beheaded as a prisoner. He may have simply died in battle, or of wounds taken sustained in the fight.

** Subject, like all good myths, to opposing interpretations.

† At the Second Battle of Kosovo, Serbian forces captured the fleeing Hungarian ruler, John Hunyadi, and his eldest son, Laszlo.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Kosovo,Language,Martyrs,Myths,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Serbia,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Yugoslavia

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1831: Mariana de Pineda Muñoz, Spanish liberal

2 comments May 26th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1831, Mariana Pineda died for her flag.

The problem, in the eyes of feckless royal troglodyte Ferdinand VII, was that Pineda’s flag stood for “Equality, Freedom and Law.”

The widowed 27-year-old (English Wikipedia page | the much more detailed Spanish) had become a devotee of the liberal Zeitgeist that contended in post-Napoleonic Europe with absolutism.

Spain had had the briefest of flings with liberal government in 1812, only to have Ferdinand reverse Spain from one of the most progressive governments in Europe to one of its most backward. The man even reintroduced the Spanish Inquisition.

By the 1830’s, tensions between constitutional liberals and unreconstructed royalists had Spain on the point of civil war, which would in fact erupt upon Ferdinand’s death two years hence.

Mariana Pineda swam with liberal circles, even helping a death-sentenced cousin escape prison. In 1831, the authorities found a flag in her home embroidered with the “Equality, Freedom and Law” slogan.

Pineda refused to name accomplices, and Ferdinand threw the book at her. Pineda remained adamant.

Before suffering public garrotting in her native Granada (while the offending flag was burnt before her), Pineda declared,

“The memory of my ordeal will do more for our cause than all the flags in the world.”

Her prediction wasn’t so far off.

Pineda’s posthumous repute as heroine has migrated from the particular cause of her day to the general pantheon of Spain. These days, a Granada public holiday (festivities held in the square named in Pineda’s honor) commemorates her sacrifice. Her name is also a byword for the struggle of women to win full political participation (there’s a Centro Europeo de Las Mujeres “Mariana de Pineda”). And martyred playwright Federico García Lorca turned her story into a theatrical classic — his first successful play.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Garrote,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Spain,Strangled,Treason,Women

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