1870: John Gregson, drunk and disorderly

Add comment January 10th, 2017 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

On this date in 1870, the very first private execution took place at Kirkdale Gaol in Liverpool.

Steven Horton’s book Liverpool Hangings: Kirkdale Hangings, 1870-1891 notes that between 1831 and 1867, executions at Kirkdale Gaol had been public, observed by crowds ranging in size from 500 to 100,000 people, but the Capital Punishment Amendment Act of 1868 put an end to them.

However, Horton says, “Hangings that carried on in private [at Kirkdale Gaol] were so near the walls that it was said by those outside that a thud could be heard when the trapdoor opened.”

Between 1870 and 1892, the year Kirkdale Gaol closed, 29 condemned prisoners were hanged privately there. “Most of those condemned,” Horton says,

were from slum properties and lived lives of squalor where drink seemed their only escape, fueling angry misjudgments which would ultimately lead to them standing on the scaffold. Just under half of the killings … involved a man or woman killing their spouse or partner. The majority were following drinking bouts …

The very first case, that of John Gregson, fit this description very well.

Gregson was a collier at Wigan. (Over sixty years later, George Orwell would write a book about the miners there.) He had married his wife Ellen in 1863. John was an alcoholic who habitually abused his wife, even after the births of their two children, and the marriage was miserable. Throughout the 1860s he appeared in court a whopping 24 times for drunken, disorderly conduct, once spending a six-month term in jail.

On October 18, 1969, John Gregson was once again in court for drunkenness. Ellen paid his fine and they went home together, stopping at a few pubs along the way. The couple lived with a lodger, who was looking after their children while they were out that day. Once the Gregsons returned, Ellen began breastfeeding the baby and two neighbors dropped by to visit.

John removed his jacket and asked one of the neighbors, Mrs. Littler, to pawn it for him. She promised to do it the next day, but he didn’t want to wait and said he’d take it to the pawnshop himself. Ellen told him if he would wait a few minutes, she’d take it there for him. John then took the baby and told her to go out, pawn the jacket and come back with a pint of beer or he would kick her.

Ellen told him the children were hungry and she was willing to pawn the jacket for food, but not drink, and John became enraged, tripped her, and began kicking her back, side and chest as she lay on the floor.

The second guest, a man named Hilton, tried to intervene and forced John into a chair, but John stood up, kicked Hilton and then began kicking Ellen again, striking her on the back of the head.

Blood began leaking from Ellen’s ears and mouth and Hilton said, horrified, “You’ve killed her.”

“If I haven’t, I ought to,” John snapped.

Ellen wasn’t dead, though, and she was put to bed, where she lay moaning while John went to sleep next to her. The next day he got some brandy and tried to give it to her, but her teeth were clenched tightly and she wasn’t able to swallow anything. Finally beginning to feel ashamed of himself, he pawned the jacket for ten shillings and used the money to pay for a doctor.

By then it was too late. In fact, it was probably too late the moment John’s heavy, iron-soled clogs connected with his wife’s head. Ellen died in the hospital on October 21; the autopsy showed a fracture at the base of her skull.

At his trial in December, John wept while the evidence was presented. His defense attorney argued by way of mitigation(!) that he regularly beat his wife and that day had been no different, and as there had been no intent to kill he was only guilty of manslaughter. But the judge, Baron Martin, told the jury that if they believed the testimony of the witnesses present during the attack, this was a case of a murder.

The jury convicted John Gregson of murder, but recommended mercy. However, Judge Martin told Gregson not to hold out any hope for a reprieve and said he, personally, had no more doubt that this was a murder than he had in his own existence.

As Martin J. Wiener’s book Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England noted, by the 1860s, fatal domestic violence was being punished more severely than it used to be:

Gregson’s drunken fatal kicking of his wife near Liverpool produced … not only a murder conviction, but his execution. Gregson could not successfully claim that his wife had herself been drunk or otherwise grievously provoking; furthermore, his case displayed a tightening in judicial interpretation of “malicious intent.” When his counsel argued that from mere drunken kicking itself one could not find an intent to kill, or even do serious bodily injury, Baron Martin immediately interjected to say that this statement about the law was “not so”: “if a man does an unlawful act, and death ensues, he is guilty of murder.” The hesitant jury’s recommendation of mercy as well as a petition campaign for reprieve that followed (joined by the coroner who had conducted the original inquest) were of no avail, since in addition the Home Office believed that he did in fact intend to kill her.

As all murder convictions came as a matter of course to be considered for reprieve, the Home Office’s role in the punishment of spousal killings expanded, while at the same time its line on such cases was hardening.

In prison John regularly met with the chaplain, saying he repented of his actions and believed his sentence was just, although he swore he had never meant to kill Ellen. Many of his fellow prisoners were there for alcohol-related offenses, and John asked the chaplain to share his story with them, so they might learn from his mistakes before it was too late.

In the last week of his life he was visited by Ellen’s father, his own mother, and his two about-to-be-orphaned children.

The execution took place on Monday morning. Horton says:

The Daily Post reported how the private nature of the execution, free of unruly crowds, gave it a much more solemn air, with people speaking in no more than a whisper. Outside there were none of the ‘denizens of the lowest purlieus of Liverpool’, instead just half a dozen policemen and a few interested onlookers waiting for the black flag to be hoisted.

At 8:00 a.m., executioner William Calcraft slipped the rope around John Gregson’s neck. The condemned man was pale and shaky, but he quietly submitted to the hangman’s ministrations. Calcraft drew the bolt, and after “three or four slight writings” the killer was dead.

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1946: Laszlo Bardossy, former Prime Minister

2 comments January 10th, 2016 Headsman

Laszlo Bardossy, one of Hungary’s several wartime Prime Ministers, was shot on this date in 1946.

Bardossy was a longtime diplomat who had become Minister of Foreign Affairs under Pal Teleki — the Count fate tragically cast to lead Hungary into the Second World War’s meatgrinder.

An esteemed geographer in his non-political life, Teleki foresaw the whirlwind Hungary might reap should she ally herself with Germany. But the conservative governments he affiliated with drew much of its vitality from a restive irredentist movement wishing to retrieve for “Little Hungary” remnants of its historical empire that had been stripped away after World War I.

Under Teleki’s predecessor Bela Imredy, Hungary gratefully reclaimed sovereignty over parts of Slovakia and Ruthenia as its price for supporting Hitler’s seizure of Czechoslovakia in 1938; two years later, German arbitrators returned northern Transylvania from Romania to Hungary.


(Via)

These were halcyon days for Hungary: for the pleasure of doubling its territory it had not been required to accept German occupation or political direction.

But those days changed for Teleki, whose ministry from 1941-1942 was characterized by an increasingly uphill struggle to maintain a free hand in the shadow of Berlin’s growing strength. In the end he couldn’t manage it, and when (with the support of Hungary’s regent and many of his peers in government) Germany marched into Hungary in 1941 en route to invading Yugoslavia, a country Hungary had a peace treaty with, Teleki shot himself and left behind an anguished note: “We broke our word, out of cowardice … we have thrown away our nation’s honor. We have allied ourselves to scoundrels … We will become body-snatchers! A nation of trash. I did not hold you back. I am guilty.”

With Teleki’s death, Hungary now became a firm partner of the Axis powers — a move personified by the immediate elevation of our man Bardossy.

His first order of business was joining the invasion of Yugoslavia, once again snatching back a piece of territory Budapest considered rightfully hers. He also tightened Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws — Bardossy’s Third Jewish Law basically attempted to cut Jews out of the economic life of the kingdom — and began approving deportations to Germany and direct massacres by Hungarian troops.

The enthusiasm of Bardossy’s participation in Germany’s project might have been his undoing — in the immediate political sense as well as his eventual fate. By the next spring, with Hungarian troops taking casualties as the junior associates in a dangerous invasion of the Soviet Union, Prince Regent Miklos Horthy was again looking to put some daylight between Hungarian policy and German, and he sacked Bardossy. Bardossy joined the leadership of a fascist party that eventually supported the pro-Nazi government installed by German invasion in 1944.

He was arrested after the war and tried as a war criminal by a People’s Court for war crimes and collaboration.

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1430: Ten men beheaded, and an eleventh man married

1 comment January 10th, 2015 Sabine Baring-Gould

(Thanks to Sabine Baring-Gould for the guest post, from this piece on Helene Gillet‘s miraculously surviving her beheading. -ed.)

In the Middle Ages there were two chances of life at the last moment accorded to a malefactor condemned to death, besides a free pardon from the sovereign. One of these was the accidental meeting of a cardinal with the procession to execution; the other was the offer of a maiden to marry the condemned man, or, in the case of a woman sentenced to death, the offer of a man to make her his wife.

The claim of the cardinals was a curious one. They pretended to have inherited the privileges with which the vestal virgins of old Rome were invested. In 1309 a man was condemned to be hung in Paris for some offence. As he was being led to execution down the street of Aubry-le-Boucher, he met the cardinal of Saint Eusebius, named Rochette, who was going up the street. The cardinal immediately took oath that the meeting was accidental, and demanded the release of the criminal. It was granted.

In 1376, Charles V was appealed to in a case of a man who was about to be hung, when a young girl in the crowd cried out that she would take him as her husband. Charles decreed that the man was to be given up to her.

In 1382, a similar case came before Charles VI, which we shall quote verbatim from the royal pardon.

Henrequin Dontart was condemned by the judges of our court in Peronne to be drawn to execution on a hurdle, and then hung by the neck till dead. In accordance with the which decree he was drawn and carried by the hangman to the gibbet, and when he had the rope round his neck, then one Jeanette Mourchon, a maiden of the town of Hamaincourt, presented herself before the provost and his lieutenant, and supplicated and required of the aforesaid provost and his lieutenant to deliver over to her the said Dontart, to be her husband. Wherefore the execution was interrupted, and he was led back to prison … and, by the tenor of these letters, it is our will that the said Dontart shall be pardoned and released.

Another instance we quote from the diary of a Parisian citizen of the year 1430.* He wrote:

On January 10, 1430, eleven men were taken to the Halles to be executed, and the heads of ten were cut off. The eleventh was a handsome young man of twenty-four; he was having his eyes bandaged, when a young girl born at the Halles came boldly forward and asked for him. And she stood to her point, and maintained her right so resolutely, that he was taken back to prison in the Chatelet, where they were married, and then he was discharged.

This custom has so stamped itself on the traditions of the peasantry, that all over France it is the subject of popular tales and anecdotes; with one of the latter we will conclude.

In Normandy a man was at the foot of the gibbet, the rope round his neck, when a sharp-featured woman came up and demanded him. The criminal looked hard at her, and turning to the hangman, said: —

A pointed nose, a bitter tongue!
Proceed, I’d rather far be hung.

* This would have been during the English occupation of Paris in the Hundred Years’ War, even as Joan of Arc was delivering the country from the hands of its antagonists.

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2013: Zhang Yongming, cannibal corpse

Add comment January 10th, 2014 Meaghan

(Thanks to Meaghan Good of the Charley Project for the guest post. -ed.)

One year ago today, 57-year-old Zhang Yongming was executed in China, just six months after a court in the province of Yunnan convicted him of murder. Zhang, a farmer, was modern China’s answer to Fritz Haarmann: authorities believe he killed young men and boys, cannibalized parts of their bodies and sold the leftover flesh at the village market.

Convicted of eleven murders, he’s suspected of six more.

When young people started disappearing in the neighborhood, the police initially assumed they’d been kidnapped and sold for slave labor, a sad situation that’s all too common in present-day China.

From TruTV:

Witnesses reported that Yongming began selling meat at the local market, which he had never done before, after 1997. The meat, which he sold as ostrich meat, was cured and dried.

When police finally searched Yongming’s house, they found strips of human flesh that were hung up to dry around his house. He kept dozens of human eyeballs preserved in alcohol in bottles, which police said looked like “snake wine.” Investigators said Yongming likely fed human remains to his dogs. In a nearby vegetable garden, police found bones believed to be human.

This wasn’t the first time Zhang had faced the death penalty, either: in 1979, he was convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but the sentence was reduced and he was released from prison in 1997. The government even helped him get back on his feet by giving him a bit of land and a monthly allowance.

But Zhang simply couldn’t stay on the straight and narrow: by the spring of 2008, he’d started killing again, and the murders didn’t stop until his arrest four years later.

Following his conviction in July 2012, he confessed to his crimes and didn’t bother to file any appeals. He reportedly showed no remorse and didn’t offer any apologies for his victims’ families or any explanation for his conduct.


Zhang’s victims.

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1879: Benjamin Hunter, in the Hunter-Armstrong Tragedy

Add comment January 10th, 2013 Headsman

(Thanks for the guest post to Robert Wilhelm of the Murder By Gaslight historic crime blog, and author of the book Murder And Mayhem in Essex County. Executed Today readers are sure to enjoy Wilhelm’s detailed investigations into long-lost historic crime. This post, reprinted with permission, first appeared last February on Murder By Gaslight. -ed.)

John Armstrong

The night of January 23, 1878, a man was found on the ground with a serious head wound, not far from the home of Ford W. Davis in Camden, New Jersey. Near the wounded man, a hammer and a hatchet were found, each marked with the initials F. W. D. The man was identified as Philadelphia music publisher, John M. Armstrong and when it was learned that he owed Ford W. Davis a sizeable amount of money, Davis was arrested. But Armstrong also owed $12,000 to Benjamin F. Hunter who had insured Armstrong’s life for more than double that amount.

Date: January 23, 1878

Location: Camden, New Jersey

Victim: John M. Armstrong

Cause of Death: Blows from a hammer and an axe

Accused: Benjamin F. Hunter

Synopsis:

Benjamin Hunter

Armstrong was taken to his home in Philadelphia, across the Delaware River from Camden, to be treated for head wounds. As a friend of the Armstrongs, Benjamin Hunter was among the first sent for by the stricken family. In the guise of helping, Hunter suspiciously rearranged the bandages on Armstrong’s head, reopening the wound. But when Armstrong died, Ford Davis was charged with his murder.

Some days later a young man named Thomas Graham was drowning his sorrows in a Philadelphia saloon. Laden with guilt, Graham made statements about the Armstrong murder that were incriminating enough to have him arrested. In jail, Graham made a full confession. Graham was an employee at Benjamin Hunter’s hardware concern and Hunter had offered him $500 to kill John Armstrong. Graham was in need of money and readily agreed.

They made a plan and set a date for the murder and Hunter made arrangements to be in Virginia that day. But Hunter returned to find Armstrong still alive — Graham’s nerve had failed him. Undaunted, Hunter came up with a more detailed plan to murder Armstrong. He gave Graham a hammer which bore the initials F. W. D. then had Graham mail a postcard to Armstrong, purporting to be from Ford Davis, asking Armstrong to meet him in Camden. Graham was to kill Armstrong with the hammer then leave it behind to frame Davis. Graham lost his nerve again but this time lied and said Armstrong never showed up.

Thomas Graham

Hunter decided not to leave anything to chance and met Armstrong, face to face, and persuaded Armstrong to accompany him on the ferry from Philadelphia to Camden. Graham, armed with the hammer and a hatchet that Hunter had given him, also initialed F.W.D., followed after them, riding in a different section of the boat. In Camden they took a streetcar and Graham followed on foot. They got off the car on Vine Street and Hunter left Armstrong and went back to give Graham the signal.

Graham hit Armstrong once with the hammer, but lost heart before he was able to finish the job. He threw the hatchet away and ran back to the ferry. Hunter grabbed the hatchet and attacked Armstrong, striking him on the head. He left Armstrong severely wounded, with a fractured skull.

After Graham’s confession, Ford Davis was released and Benjamin Hunter was arrested for murder.

Trial: June 10, 1878

Benjamin Hunter pled not guilty to the murder of John Armstrong. The defense asserted that there was no evidence that Hunter was in Camden that night. They also provided numerous witnesses that testified to Hunter’s good character. And they challenged the indictment on the grounds that since Armstrong died in Philadelphia, the murder could not be prosecuted in New Jersey.

It came out in court that Hunter had loaned Armstrong a total of $12,000 and to insure his loan Hunter had persuaded Armstrong to agree to a life insurance policy with Hunter as beneficiary. The amount of the policy was $26,000.

Thomas Graham had turned state’s evidence and it was his eye-witness testimony which tightened the noose around Hunter’s neck. The trial lasted 23 days and at the end the jury, with almost no deliberation, found Hunter guilty.

Verdict: Guilty of first degree murder

Aftermath:

Hunter’s attorneys appealed the verdict on the grounds that since Armstrong died in Philadelphia, Hunter could not be convicted of murder in Camden, New Jersey. The appeal was denied and Hunter was sentenced to hang on January 10, 1879.

With all hope gone, Benjamin Hunter confessed. The amount of money he had loaned Armstrong had been so large that he had been losing sleep worrying about it. Armstrong appeared to be using the money to maintain a lavish lifestyle rather than improving his failing business. Hunter’s only hope of retrieving his money was Armstrong’s death.

A week before the execution, Hunter attempted suicide, trying to spare his family and himself the indignity of a hanging. He was not allowed a knife or fork when eating, but he was able to tear away the top of a tin cup and used sharp edge to cut into his leg. Under a blanket he was able to cut an artery without the knowledge of the jailers on his deathwatch, and he had lost a pint and a half of blood before passing out and alerting them. He was saved from death and the execution went on as scheduled.

It was reported that Hunter, due to weakness from the loss of blood, and fear of death had to be carried to the gallows; though some claimed he had been given brandy and was dead drunk when carried in.

The hanging was to be done using a method adopted by the state of New Jersey — used in the case of Antoine La Blanc, among others — in which, rather than falling through a trap, the condemned man is pulled upward when a counterweight is dropped. Hunter’s execution was horribly botched as this eye-witness account attests:

“There was no scaffold. He was hanged in the corridor of the Court House, with a rope reaching up into the Court House over a pulley and to a weight in the cellar below. He was hanged at a cross-like arrangement, made by two corridors populated by men from some of whom the Sheriff demanded ten dollars apiece, and Eli Morgan, Deputy Sheriff to Sheriff Daubman, was to cut a little rope that held a stronger rope that controlled a three-hundred pound weight that was intended to hoist up the murderer into the air. The narrator was within two feet of Hunter when he was hanged. The rope was so long that it failed of its purpose and stretched, and the man went up in the air for but a few feet then tumbled down like a bunch of wet rags. Then Eli Morgan grabbed the rope and hauled him up hand over hand and held him there until he was throttled to death.”

It took Hunter at least fourteen minutes to die of strangulation.

Benjamin Hunter’s brother tried to collect on the life insurance policy and agreed to give the money to the Armstrong family. The insurance company refused to pay and Armstrong’s wife and administratrix of his estate, sued the company. The court sided with the insurance company saying they did not need to pay. The case was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court who overturned the verdict and called for a new trial. If the insurance company could prove that the policy had been taken out by Hunter as part of the crime of murder, then policy need not be paid, if there was no fraud, then the money must be paid.

The false accusation and imprisonment of Ford Davis had completely prostrated him. Shortly afterwards, partly out of consideration for his innocent sufferings, Davis was appointed crier of the Camden Courts, and he held that position for many years.

Resources:
Books:

Hunter, Benjamin F., and Thomas Graham. Hunter-Armstrong tragedy the great trial : conviction of Benj. F. Hunter for the murder of John M. Armstrong. Philadelphia: Barclay, 1878.

Lawson, John Davison. American state trials: a collection of the important and interesting criminal trials which have taken place in the United States from the beginning of our government to the present day. St. Louis: Thomas Law Books, 1921.

Seen & heard by Megargee, Volume 4, Part 1. Philadelphia: Louis N. Megarcee, 1904.

The Medico-legal journal … New York: Medico legal journal, 1886.

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1937: Martemyan Ryutin, for his affair

1 comment January 10th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1937, Martemyan Ryutin was condemned to death and immediately executed in Stalinist USSR.

Ryutin (English Wikipedia entry | Russian | another Russian bio) was a revolutionary from the Far East who by the late 1920s was in the Bolsheviks’ heretical right wing; his affiliation with Bukharin and Rykov got him temporarily booted out of the Communist party in 1930.

Not content to keep his head safely down as Stalin’s star ascended, Ryutin typed out an anti-Stalin pamphlet and the 200-page “Ryutin Platform” denouncing Josef Djugashvili as “the gravedigger of the Revolution” and urging that he be removed — even by force.*

Weeks after Ryutin began circulating this incendiary samizdat the secret police busted him.

Though open discussion of the so-called Ryutin Affair was nonexistent in the Soviet Union until the Gorbachev era, it was a matter of dire importance for the Politburo in 1932; indeed, fleeting as it was, it’s one of the few organized elite attempts to thwart Stalin discernible during the 1930s. Stalin wanted Ryutin executed, but he was outvoted; this is a small milepost on the way to the Yezhovschina indicating that Stalin’s power still had its limits … and Bolsheviks still recoiled at the prospect of killing other party members.** These constraints were not very long for the scene.

Even so, Ryutin got a 10-year prison sentence and anyone else who had read the Ryutin platform without informing on it to the Party was in seriously hot water. Twenty-four were expelled from the party in October 1932 for this reason, including once-proud and soon-doomed Old Bolsheviks Zinoviev and Kamenev.

Ryutin, for his part, had only a few years to wait before the deteriorating political climate dispensed with those taboos about internecine bloodletting. The Supreme Court signed off on his execution this day with just a few minutes’ hearing, and it was immediately carried out.

Ryutin’s two sons were also executed in 1937, and his wife died in a labor camp. Only his daughter Lyubov survived the Ryutin Affair — which convictions were posthumously reversed in 1988.

* Bukharin’s widow later wrote that Stalin’s agents later added the most inflammatory material — like that violent overthrow stuff.

** Had Stalin had his way in 1932, Ryutin would have had the distinction of being the first Central Committee member to be executed, according to Suzi Weissman.

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2010: An al Shabaab rebel commander

Add comment January 10th, 2011 Headsman

According to a Reuters report, it was on this date last year that an al Shabaab militant was publicly shot in Somalia by a pro-government militia.

Al Shabaab — “the youth” — is an offshoot from the (now-history) Islamist alliance involved in that whole Black Hawk Down unpleasantness.

You might remember them from this summer’s World Cup: they’re the guys who bombed World Cup viewers in Uganda, killing 76. Al Shabaab (allegedly al Qaeda-linked) basically controls southern Somalia with its allies.

“We don’t normally kill al Shabaab members,” explained a spokesman for the Ahlu Sunna Waljama’a paramilitary, in cheerily chilling terms. “We arrest them and make them understand that Islam means peace.”

The unnamed character we notice this date apparently failed to “understand,” and was shot for not renouncing his affiliation.

“This commander insisted that all people were infidels except his group … We will execute al Shabaab members who insist that it can be right to kill the innocent. What else are we supposed to do to those who believe they will go to paradise for killing us and the whole human race?”

The execution nevertheless failed to quell the intractable Somali Civil War.

Part of the Themed Set: 2010.

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1645: William Laud, given to the devil

4 comments January 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1645, Archbishop William Laud was beheaded on Tower Hill for treason.


Portrait of William Laud by Anthony Van Dyck. For this image’s subsequent life in popular circulation (and its contribution to its subject’s beheading) see Mercurius Politicus.

This diminutive “martinet” made himself odious to the rising Puritan party through his rigorous (some would say narrow-minded) enforcement of so-called “High Church” dogma and decor. It was a time when believers were prepared to rend the fabric of the church over a literal fabric, the surplice worn by the clergy — among other innumerable points of doctrinal rectitude.

Laud’s run as Archbishop of Canterbury also happened to coincide with Charles I‘s 11-year personal rule, sans parliament. The overweening divine’s influence on secular as well as religious policy would do his sovereign no favors in the public mind.

Roughly enforcing an unpopular minority position, Laud got the woodblock blogosphere in a tizzy with heavy-handed stunts like having dissenters’ ears cut off.

That’s the sort of thing that’ll give a guy an image problem. The king’s fool, Archibald Armstrong, is supposed to have tweaked our high and mighty subject (and warned the king against his influence*) with the punny aphorism,

Give great praise to the Lord, and little laud to the devil.

Funny because it’s true.

So when Charles ran out of money and finally had to call parliament in 1640, that august representative of the nation had some business with Laud. Ironically — since the prelate was always sensitive about his height — it would involve shortening him.

Laud was impeached as early as December 1640 and soon tossed in the Tower, where his neck awaited the unfolding radicalization of the pent-up Puritans and the onset of armed hostilities in their contest with the obdurate king. (While his hands blessed the allies who preceded him to the block.)


Wenceslas Hollar’s etching of William Laud’s trial.

For more about Laud’s life and work, check out the detailed Britannica entry or this Google books freebie.

* If a warning, it apparently was not heard. This 19th-century publication of Armstrong’s jests cites a 1637 royal order to the effect that

the King’s Fool, for certain scandalous words of a high nature, spoken by him against the Lord Arch-Bishop of Canterbury his Grace … shall have his coat pulled over his head, and be discharged of the King’s service, and banished the Court.

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1934: Marinus van der Lubbe, for the Reichstag fire

8 comments January 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1934, Dutch bricklayer Marinus van der Lubbe was beheaded by guillotine in Leipzig for setting the Reichstag Fire.

A watershed event* in the formation of the Nazi dictatorship, the Reichstag fire days before a parliamentary election enabled Hitler to stampede voters, suspend civil liberties, suppress left-wing parties on grounds of a suspected Communist plot, and seize “emergency” powers he would never relinquish.

Heil Hitler.

This clip from an American miniseries on Hitler with the characters chattering in unaccented English portrays the fascists’ opportunistic use of the attack on a national symbol … something not exactly unknown to later generations.

Van der Lubbe, who was arrested on the scene, suffered the predictable fate. Four other Communists charged as accomplices were acquitted, in a trial with the gratifying spectacle of Hermann Goering personally testifying, and being undressed on cross-examination by one of the reds. One is reminded here that Hitler did not yet have everything in the state apparatus at his beck and call … although he did have a great deal already, inasmuch as the arson law under which van der Lubbe died was passed after the Reichstag fire and made retroactive.

If the big-picture outcome of the Reichstag fire is pretty clear-cut, its real origin and the corresponding rightness of the judicial verdicts have remained murky ever since. The fact that the scene of the crime became Nazi ground zero for the next decade sort of obscures the evidence.

Van der Lubbe confessed, so his participation is generally taken as a given.

Whether he was really able to start the blaze acting alone, as he insisted, and the Nazis “only” exploited this fortuitous calamity; whether he was part of a larger leftist plot, as his prosecutors claimed; or whether, as Shirer and many others since have viewed him, he was a patsy in a false flag operation set up by the Nazis with an eye towards creating a politically advantageous national emergency — these possibilities remain very much up for debate.

For what it’s worth, postwar West German courts reversed and un-reversed the sentence before officially rehabilitating van der Lubbe last year on the non-specifically indisputable grounds that the legal machinery brought to bear on the Reichstag fire “enabled breaches of basic conceptions of justice.”

* From Defying Hitler: A Memoir by a writer who would soon emigrate:

I do not see that one can blame the majority of Germans who, in 1933, believed that the Reichstag fire was the work of the Communists. What one can blame them for, and what shows their terrible collective weakness of character … is that this settled the matter. With sheepish submissiveness, the German people accepted that, as a result of the fire, each one of them lost what little personal freedom and dignity was guaranteed by the constitution, as though it followed as a necessary consequence. If the Communists had burned down the Reichstag, it was perfectly in order that the government took “decisive measures”!

Next morning I discussed these matters with a few other Referendars. All of them were very interested in the question of who had committed the crime, and more than one of them hinted that they had doubts about the official version; but none of them saw anything out of the ordinary in the fact that, from now on, one’s telephone would be tapped, one’s letters opened, and one’s desk might be broken into. “I consider it a personal insult,” I said, “that I should be prevented from reading whichever newspaper I wish, because allegedly a Communist set light to the Reichstag. Don’t you?” One of them cheerfully and harmlessly said, “No. Why should I? Did you read Forwards and The Red Flag up to now?”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arson,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Innocent Bystanders,Language,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Posthumous Exonerations,Power

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1775: Yemelyan Pugachev

4 comments January 10th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1775, the Russian Empress Catherine the Great had Cossack rebel Yemelyan Pugachev chopped to pieces in Moscow for sustaining a major insurrection whose effects would haunt Russia for decades to come.

Pugachev’s Rebellion was the most spectacular specimen in populous family tree of 18th century peasant uprisings.

Most such disturbances were local and fundamentally unthreatening. Pugachev’s was neither.

The Cossack commander raised a revolt in the Urals in 1773, styling himself the long-lost tsar Catherine had overthrown a decade before.

Catherine was slow to see the import, but this hinterlands pretender set up a state-like bureaucracy and began issuing ukases as tsar — and one can readily discern from their content why he attracted a following:

We bestow on all those who formerly were peasants and in subjugation to the landowners, along with Our monarchic and paternal compassion … tenure of the land and the forests and the hay meadows and the fisheries and the salt lakes, without purchase and without obrok, and we liberate all the aforementioned from the villainous nobles and from the bribe takers in the city–the officials who imposed taxes and other burdens on the peasants and the whole people … [T]hose who formerly were nobles living on estates are enemies to Our power and disrupters of the empire and oppressors of the peasantry, and they should be caught, executed and hanged, they should be treated just as they, who have no Christianity, dealt with you peasants.

The insurrection speedily metastasized, and by the time a force sufficient to quash it was deployed, it had stretched itself from the Urals to the Volga.

Alexander Pushkin used the story of Pugachev’s rebellion for The Captain’s Daughter (text in English | Russian), which has been adapted to film several times — most recently in 2000.

Catherine the Great, for her part, was deeply shaken by the affair, and the “enlightened despot”, while maintaining traffic with the era’s liberal intellectual ferment, decisively turned against any reform to serfdom. Catherine’s choice, reinforced by her successors, to uphold their security with nothing but repression maintained Russian serfdom until 1861 on a staggering scale — an anchor dragging down the economy just as industrializing western Europe opened a development gap whose effects persist to this day.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Popular Culture,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Russia,Soldiers,Treason

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