On this date in 1942, Senitsa Vershovsky was shot in the city of Kremenchuk in the Soviet Union, in what is now the Ukraine.
Vershovsky was the mayor of Kremenchuk and was also a major in the Red Army. His executioners were members of Einsatzgruppe A, one of Nazi Germany’s mobile killing squads: they killed Vershovsky for “carry[ing] out his duties in gross defiance of German orders … [and] sabotaging the handling of the Jewish problem by having a great number of Jews baptized in order to remove them from German control.”
Approximately 30,000 Jews lived in Kremenchuk, constituting 40% of the city’s population and they had good cause to remove themselves as far as possible from German control. The Einsatzgruppen, as they did in countless other cities throughout the Soviet Union, rounded up the Jewish population, forced them to dig their own graves, and machine-gunned them by the thousands.
Vershovsky’s attempts to help the Jews under his charge, futile though his efforts may have been, nevertheless deserve a footnote in history. For, as historian Raul Hilberg noted, in all the situation reports filed by the Einsatzgruppen during their 22 months of operation,
This incident appears to be the only one of its kind. The counterpressure was evidently too great. Whoever attempted to aid the Jews acted alone and exposed himself as well as his family to the possibility of a death sentence from a German Kommando. There was no encouragement for a man with an awakened conscience.
In a time of great adversity, Senitsa Vershovsky showed himself to be a courageous and fundamentally decent human being, and he paid for it with his life. The least we can do is remember him.
On this date in 1813, the British intensified their war against machine-wrecking Luddites by executing 14 at York.
We touched last week on Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe, three Luddites hanged for assassinating a wool manufacturer during the dirty war that resulted from mechanizing formerly-artisanal textile production. The Luddite Bicentenary blog was prominently linked in that post; it’s been chronicling the real-time course of the Luddite rebellion from two hundred years’ remove, and is a recommended follow for anyone interested in this period.
Today, the Luddite Bicentenary marks the mass hangings of January 16, 1813, pursuant to sentences issued by that same special tribunal in York. Most had been convicted of an attack on nearby Rawfolds Mill; others, for taking part in two home-invasion robberies for the purpose of obtaining weapons.
Enjoy the full story at Luddite Bicentenary … but here’s a teaser excerpt from the January 23, 1813 Leeds Mercury‘s account of the “inexpressibly awful” sequential mass-hangings, seven upon seven, widowing 13 wives and leaving 56 children (and a 57th on the way) fatherless.
After sentence of death had been passed upon the persons convicted of making the attack on Mr. Cartwright’s Mill, at Rawfolds, and of the Burglaries, fifteen in number, all of them except John Lumb, who was reprieved, were removed to the condemned-ward, and their behaviour in that place was very suitable to their unhappy situation…
if any of these unfortunate men possessed any secret that it might have been important to the public to know, they suffered it to die with them. Their discoveries were meagre in the extreme. Not one of them impeached any of their accomplices, nor did they state, as might reasonably have been expected, where the depot of arms, in the collection of which some of them had been personally engaged, was to be found. When interrogated on this point, some of them disclaimed all knowledge of the place, and others said, Benjamin Walker, the informer against Mellor, Thorpe, and Smith, could give the best information about the arms, as he had been present at most of the depredations. … The principal part of these ill-fated men were married and have left families. William Hartley, has left seven children, their mother, happily for herself, died about half a year ago. John Ogden, wife and two children; Nathan Hoyle, wife and seven children; Joseph Crowther, wife pregnant, and four children; John Hill, wife and two children; John Walker, wife and five children; Jonathan Dean, wife and seven children; Thomas Brook, wife and three children; John Swallow, wife and six children; John Batley, wife and one child; John Fisher, wife and three children; Job Hey, wife and seven children; James Hey, wife and two children; James Haigh, wife, but no children. On the morning before the execution, the eldest daughter of Hartley obtain permission to visit a wretched parent, when a scene took place which we will not attempt to describe. The heart-broken father wished to have been spared the anguish of this parting interval, but the importunate intreaties of his child a last prevailed, and they met to take a long farewell, never again to be repeated in this world. What must be the feelings of an affectionate father, (for such in this trying moment he appears to have shewn himself,) when, though standing on the brink of eternity, he declines to see a darling child; how great an aggravation of his punishment must those parting pangs of inflicted, and how loud an admonition does this melancholy incident suggest to the Fathers of families against entering into combinations that may place them in the same inexpressibly afflicted situations. It was Hartley’s particular request that the public should be informed of the number and unprovided situation of his orphan family.
At 11 o’clock on Saturday morning, the Under Sheriff went to demand the bodies of John Ogden, Nathan Hoyle, Joseph Crowther, John Hill, John Walker, Jonathan Dean, and Thomas Brook. They were all engaged in singing a hymn:
Behold the Saviour of Mankind,
Nail’d to the shameful tree;
How vast the love that him inclin’d
To bleed and for me, &c.
Which one of them [Luddite Bicentennary notes: John Walker, according to the Leeds Intelligencer] dictated in a firm tone of voice; and in this religious service they continued on their way to the platform, and some time after they had arrived at the fatal spot. They then join the ordinary with great fervency in the prayers appointed to be read on such occasions, and after that gentleman had taken his final leave of them, ejaculations to the throne of mercy rose from every part of the crowded platform.
Joseph Crowther addressing himself to the spectators said, “Farewell Lads;” another whose name we could not collect said, “I am prepared for the Lord,” and John Hill, advancing a step or two on the platform, said, “Friends! all take warning by my fate; for three years I followed the Lord, but about half a year since, I began to fall away; and fell by little and little, and at last I am come to this; persevere in the ways of godliness, and O! take warning by my fate!” The executioner then proceeded to the discharge of his duty, and the falling of the platform soon after, forced an involuntary shriek from the vast concourse of spectators assembled to witness this tremendous sacrifice to the injured laws of the country.
The bodies having remained suspended for the usual time [LB: 12.00 p.m.], they were removed, and while the place of execution was yet warm with the blood of the former victims, the remaining seven, namely, John Swallow, John Batley, Joseph Fisher, William Hartley, James Haigh, James Hey, and Job Hey, were led at half-past one o’clock from their cell to the fatal stage, their behaviour, like that of their deceased confederates, was contrite and becoming; James Haigh expressed deep contrition for his offences. John Swallow said he had been led away by wicked and unprincipled men, and hoped his fate would be a warning to all, and teach them to live a life of sobriety and uprightness. They all united in prayer with an earnestness that is seldom witnessed in the services of devotion, except in the immediate prospect of death [LB: the Leeds Intelligencer said they sung the same hymn as those executed earlier]. A few moments closed their mortal existence, and placed at the bar differing from all earthly tribunal’s [sic] in this infinitely important particular — here, owing to the imperfections of all human institutions, repentance though sincere, cannot procure forgiveness — there, we have the authority of God himself for saying, that the cries of the contrite and broken-hearted shall not be despised. Charity hopeth all things.
The criminal records of Yorkshire do not perhaps afford an instance of so many victims having been offered in one day to the injured laws of the country. The scene was inexpressibly awful, and the large body of soldiers, both horse and foot, who guarded the approach to the castle, and were planted in front of the fatal tree, gave to the scene of peculiar degree of terror, and exhibited the appearance of a military execution. The spectators, particularly in the morning, were unusually numerous, and their behaviour on both occasions, were strictly decorous and unbecoming. [sic]
Art history footnote: notice that the cadaver’s navel is a stylized “R”: the artist was playing around with his signatures during this period. Also, note the hand under dissection. The scene was actually re-enacted in 2006 to establish that Rembrandt’s done the forearm tendons incorrectly — it does look wonky. Additionally, the very fact that the anatomist is beginning with the arm rather than the usual trunk has led to speculation over whether this was an artistic choice or the doctor’s actual procedure in the thrall of a temporary medical vogue.
The 25-year-old painter had only moved to Amsterdam at the end of the previous year.
He broke through almost immediately with a commission — it was his first major group portrait and it would become known as his first major masterpiece (source), instantly establishing his preeminence in the city’s art scene — from the Amsterdam Guild of Surgeons to render one of its most important events: the annual public dissection of a criminal.**
Prior to the systematic medicalization of the corpse, when anatomizing a human was still a fraught and transgressive act, Netherlands cities were permitted only one such exposition per year. Its subject could only be a male criminal who would be given a Christian burial thereafter. (Contrary to the English model, posthumous dissection was not used to intensify a death sentence with a further terror.)
The affair would have been crowded not only with other doctors but city council members, intellectuals, and well-dressed respectable burghers. Anyone, in short, who was anyone (they paid for the privilege).
And, of course, its overseer, Nicolaes Tulp; Rembrandt’s framing will leave you no doubt as to which figure in the painting is in charge. The city’s most respected surgeon, Tulp was the Guild’s Praelector Anatomiae, “reader in anatomy”, dignified with the responsibility of publicly lecturing on the unfolding dissection.
The silent but essential final party was Aris Kindt, the alias of a Leiden†-born criminal around Rembrandt’s own age named Adriann Adriannsz. His life was forfeit as a recidivist thief who had lately mugged a gentleman for his cloak.
This common crook’s ghastly lifeless image‡ is more alive for us in posterity than nearly any of his more law-abiding contemporaries. The expressive composition surrounding him is pregnant with all of the moment’s paradoxes: the advance of humanism on the back of a cruel penal regime; the exaltation of the mind with the unsentimental commodification of the flesh; excellence and status bowing over that old emblem of mankind’s final equality in the tomb.
Evil men, who did harm when alive, do good after their deaths:
Health seeks advantages from Death itself.
Rembrandt must have agreed: he painted the Guild’s criminal dissection again in 1656.
* Some sources give January 16, 1632 for the execution. This possibility appears to me to be disbarred by the apparent January 17 dating of a Rembrandt portrait of Marten Looten; indeed, confusion over this Rembrandt-related January date may even be the ultimate source of the misattribution, if January 16 is indeed mistaken. Scholarly sources overwhelmingly prefer the 31st, apparently from primary documentation that both the hanging and a Tulp lecture took place on that date. (See, e.g., the out-of-print seminal academic work.)
On this date in 1400, English aristocrat John Holland, Earl of Huntingdon and (formerly) Duke of Exeter, lost his head for the Epiphany Rising.
John Holland’s coat of arms.
Half-brother to (and staunch ally of) Richard II, the violentJohn Holland prospered during the king’s acme in the 1390s. A variety of lucrative posts accumulated as honoraria for Holland’s exertions in the military and political fields.
Unfortunately for “Exeter”, a fellow Lord Appellant named Henry Bolingbroke was about to successfully depose Richard II, and style himself Henry IV.
Holland’s loyalty to the former King Richard, now held under lock and key, became distinctly impolitic.
Having been dispossessed of the Exeter title, earned by service the new sovereign did not consider meritorious, John Holland got in on a plot to kidnap Henry IV during a tournament at Windsor … which devolved, when Henry found out about it, into an abortive rising with a number of executions. Richard FitzAlan’s sister (also Henry IV’s mother-in-law) had the satisfaction of ordering Holland’s beheading at Pleshy Castle, Essex.
Holland’s loyalty to Richard II ultimately did them both in: because the Epiphany Rising so graphically illustrated the danger that a living rival claimant posed to Henry IV, the king had his imprisoned predecessor murdered behind dungeon walls that February.
And of course, while that act secured Henry’s throne, Bolingbroke could never entirely chop his way to uncontested legitimacy: the rival successions of Henry IV and Richard II came to blows decades later in the War of the Roses. (Much to the profit of this site.)
1682. Jan. 16. Alexander Cockburn,* the hangman of Edinburgh, was tried before the magistrates as sheriffs, for the murder, in his own house, of one Adamson or Mackenzie, a blue-gown beggar. The proof was slender, and chiefly of the nature of presumption — as, that he had denied Adamson’s being in his house on the alleged day, the contrary being proved, groans having been heard, and bloody clothes found in the house; and this evidence, too, was chiefly from women. Yet he was condemned to be hanged within three suns. One Mackenzie, whom Cockburn had caused to lose his place of hangman at Stirling, performed the office.
Condemned by the evidence of women. How much worse can it get?
There is no report I have been able to locate of Cockburn’s actual hanging date; the “within three suns” sentence was standard for the time.
In days of yore, (says Aubrey) lords and gentlemen lived in the country like petty kings, had jura regalia belonging to the seignories, had castles and boroughs, had gallows within their liberties, where they would try, condemn, and execute; never went to London but in parliament time, or once a year to do homage to the king. Justice was administered with great expedition, and too often with vindictive severity. Pennant informs us that “originally the time of trial and execution was to be within three suns!” About the latter end of the seventeenth century** the period was extended to nine days after sentence; but since a rapid and unjust execution in a petty Scottish town, 1720,† the execution has been ordered to be deferred for forty days on the south, and sixty on the north side of the Tay, that time may be allowed for an application to the king for mercy.
** Specifically, 1695 — well after our day’s hangman had turned hanged man.
† This picturesque over-hasty execution detail appears to me to be folklorish and of questionable reliability. The bottom footnote here attributes the legal change to a cracking yarn about a dancing-master and an officer (here’s the broadside). This source puts it down to a man who committed murder while drunk and was caught, tried, and hanged before he so much as sobered up.
On this date in 1980, a professor, a soldier, a bureaucrat and a businessman were hanged by Saddam Hussein in his campaign to cow Iraq’s Turkic ethnic minority.
The ethnic and religious quiltwork of Iraq is much more nuanced than Sunni vs. Shia — and this blog has noticed its deadly potential before.
This day’s hangings belong to an earlier era, of the Ba’athist secular pan-Arab aspiration that had Hussein quashing minority national aspirations. (Though the anti-minority stance was hardly unique to him.)
Nejdet Kochak, Abdullah Abdurrahman, Riza Demirji and Adil Sherif were ethnic Turkmen (or Turkomen), ethnically and linguistically distinct Moslem descendants of those far-flung peoples of the Eurasian steppes.
More to the point, they were relatively prominent voices for Turkoman civil rights in the face of harsh state suppression.
This being Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, the problem had an easy solution. The four were made examples of, convicted of spying for their brother Turks in Turkey, and hanged — but not forgotten.