1685: Robert Pollack and Robert Millar, Covenanters

1 comment January 23rd, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1685, Robert Pollack and Robert Millar (or Pollock and Miller) were hanged in Edinburgh as Covenanters.

An East Kilbride shoemaker and a Rutherglen mason, respectively, they were a tick and a tock in the Killing Time — lost like tears in rain amid the torrent of Presbyterian martyrs.

These adhered to James Renwick‘s subversive doctrine of Scottish presbyter control against the overweening Anglican Episcopacy, a conflict of characteristically comingling religious and political characters.

Since most of the Covenanter-killing was being done summarily by soldiers in the field, these Roberts were actually the rare gallows-birds to be condemned in civil court, for which trouble they strangled at the Gallowlee on the road from Edinburgh to Peith.

Their last testaments can be read here, along with those of many other such martyrs.

Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, and employ your strength in the holding up of the fallen-down standard of our Lord, and if ye be found real in this duty, ye shall either be a temple, which shall be a glorious sight, or else ye shall be transported, and be a member of the Church triumphant; so ye shall be no loser, but a noble gainer either of the ways.

-Robert Millar

Though not up to the fame of having their own statuary, Pollack/Pollock has a place on the Covenanter monument in East Kilbride … where the martyrs’ spiritual descendants recently held the movement’s first open-air Conventicle since the 1680s.

Part of the Themed Set: Resistance and Rebellion in the Restoration.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,England,Execution,God,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Treason

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1903: Arthur Alfred Lynch condemned

1 comment January 23rd, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1903, Irish MP Arthur Alfred Lynch waited 26 minutes for a jury to convict him, then heard the sentence of a British court for having fought against the British Empire in the Boer War.

[T]he jury have found you guilty of the crime of high treason, a crime happily so rare that in the present day a trial for treason seems to be almost an anachronism — a thing of the past. There can be no doubt that in times gone by there was great abuse, and many persons were indicted, convicted, and punished for matters which would not now be thought worthy of serious or, perhaps, any notice. There has been a kind of national reaction by which many persons have been disposed to treat serious crimes against the State as if the name of treason, and as if the thing, no longer existed. One moment of reflection will show you how erroneous is such a conception …

Yes, even if the black cap gave away the ending, the judge was going to take his time getting to it.

The misdeeds which have been done in this case, and which have brought you to the lamentable pass in which you stand, must surely convince the most sceptical and apathetic of the gravity and reality of the crime. What was your action in the darkest hour of your country’s fortunes, when she was engaged in the deadly struggle from which she has just emerged? You joined the ranks of your country’s foes. Born in Australia, a land which has nobly shown its devotion to its parent country, you have indeed taken a different course from that which was adopted by her sons. You have fought against your country, not with it. You have sought, as far as you could, to dethrone Great Britain from her place among the nations, to make her name a byword and a reproach, a synonym for weakness and irresolution. …

Even allowing that this sentence was pronounced before either of the coming century’s world wars, calling the Boer War to conquer South Africa for the crown England’s “darkest hour” only underscores how very long Britannia had stayed in the sun. Were the early shadows of empire’s twilight visible from here … or was it just standard issue judicial showboating?

[Y]ou thought it safe, no doubt, to lift the parricidal hand against your country. You thought she would shrink from the costly struggle wearied out by her gigantic efforts, and that, at the worst, a general peace would be made which would comprehend a general amnesty and cover up such acts as yours and save you from personal peril. You misjudged your country and failed to appreciate that though slow to enter into a quarrel, however slow to take up arms, it has yet been her wont that in the quarrel she shall bear herself so that the opposer may beware of her, and that she is seldom so dangerous to her enemies as when the hour of national calamity has raised the dormant energies of her people — knit together every nerve and fibre of the body politic and has made her sons determined to do all, to bear all, to sacrifice all on behalf of the country that gave them birth.

The only — I will not say excuse, but palliation that I can find for conduct like yours is that it has been for some years past the fashion to treat lightly matters of this kind, so that men have been perhaps encouraged to play with sedition and to toy with treason, wrapt in a certain proud consciousness of strength begotten of the deep-seated and well-founded conviction that the loyalty of her people is supreme, and true authority in this country has slumbered or has treated with contemptuous indifference speeches and acts of sedition.

There’s some relish here, the kind you’d hear if Antonin Scalia had an opportunity to pass sentence on Cynthia McKinney.

This ponderous bombast was the culmination of a highly-anticipated, highly-publicized trial of a man who had returned to London and arrest as an elected Irish parliamentarian after upholding the Boer cause in print throughout Europe, and enrolling an Irish unit in the fight.*


Col. Lynch’s Irish Brigade, from this South African military history page.

Incidentally, this is the same judge who sentenced Oscar Wilde for the love that dare not speak its name, intoning on that occasion that “people who can do these things must be dead to all senses of shame, and one cannot hope to produce any effect upon them.” (Mr. Justice Wills’ update of his father’s classic treatise on circumstantial evidence is available from Google books, as is Wanderings Among the High Alps, which he wrote in his capacity as mountaineering hobbyist.)

But had you and those with whom you associated yourself succeeded, what fatal mischief might have been done to … that inheritance of power which it must be our work to use nobly and for good things; an inheritance of influence which will be of little effect even for good unless backed by power, and of duty which cannot be effectually performed if our power be shattered and our influence impaired. He who has attempted to do his country such irreparable wrong must be prepared to submit to the sentence which it is now my duty to pronounce upon you … that you be taken hence to the place from which you came and from thence to a place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead.

For all this sound and fury, one would hardly know that it was generally and publicly understood the sentence would be swiftly commuted — as it was, a few days later.

Arthur Lynch received a free pardon in 1907, and in 1909 was returned to parliament as an Irish nationalist delegate to resume his remarkable career as writer, physician, engineer and all-around polymath.

* Lynch’s part in the war is included in The Boer Fight for Freedom, another century-old tome in the public domain and available on Google Books.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Doctors,England,Guerrillas,Hanged,History,Intellectuals,Not Executed,Occupation and Colonialism,Pardons and Clemencies,Politicians,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Soldiers,South Africa,Treason

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1945: Nikolaus Gross, Catholic anti-Nazi labor activist

1 comment January 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1945, labor activist Nikolaus Gross entered the ranks of Catholic martyrs of Nazi Germany.

A miner turned newsman of the Catholic labor movement, Gross was a peripheral associate of the July 20 Plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler. He had been known and watched as a dissident and was detained shortly after the plot’s failure, but was only put to death after months of torture, along with a batch of other smaller fish in the conspiracy.

A prelate recalled a conversation he had before the dangerous venture was attempted:

I said to Nikolaus Gross on the day before the assassination attempt on Hitler of 20 July 1944: “Mr Gross, remember that you have seven children. I have no family for which I am responsible. It’s a matter of your life.” To which Gross made a really great statement to me: “If we do not risk our life today, how do we then want one day to justify ourselves before God and our people?”

Gross is notable as the first Catholic lay victim of Naziism subsequently beatified by the Church. The timing (he was beatified in 2001) is interesting to note.*

The long-running controversy over the complicated role of Catholicism writ large — if indeed such a thing could be assessed at all — during the Holocaust had surged into popular conversation with the 1999 publication of Hitler’s Pope.**

Was the Vatican’s silence during the war years complicity or powerlessness? How does one measure and weigh the behavior of the hierarchy as against individuals who risked death in resistance large and small — and they against others who collaborated for advantage, and against the vast multitude who simply went along? Can we speak of a responsibility of “the Church” for its own history of anti-Semitism, and if so, what did that mean for the live people facing real choices in the 1930s and 40s?

Bound up as they are in their respondents’ own present-day agendas, these questions seem certain to remain a point of conflict. Propagandists will always keep their own store of exemplars in either perfidy or saintliness, but let us give Nikolaus Gross no less than his due: he answered his duty unswervingly, and on this day, answered with his life.

Online accounts differ as to whether Gross was hanged or beheaded. Both methods were in use.

German-language pages on Gross are here and here. His farewell letter to his family, also in German, is here.

* Lest too grand a claim of causal relationship be inferred, note that beatification is a meandering procedure of bureaucracy rarely answering the day’s headlines; that the late Pope John Paul II elevated such legions to the choirs of heaven as to provoke complaints of debased coinage; and that in an Italian church headed by a Polish pontiff honoring a German martyr, the relationship between fascism and Catholicism was not something that, as in the English-speaking world, might have waned into forgetfulness before a timely work of popular history.

** The controversy surrounding this book, and the author’s subsequent moderation of some conclusions, is covered in a Wikipedia article. Naturally, it spawned more books — both in support of its thesis of Catholic collaboration and against.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Assassins,Beheaded,Disfavored Minorities,Germany,Hanged,Mass Executions,Notable for their Victims,Religious Figures,Torture,Treason,Wartime Executions

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