1878: Gauchito Gil, Argentina folk saint

Add comment January 8th, 2017 Headsman

January 8 is the execution day in 1878 of Argentine folk saint “Gauchito Gil”.

Nobody knows for sure if he really existed, but thousands flock to his sanctuary near Mercedes on this remembrance date while roadside red-flagged shrines throughout Argentina pay him homage all the year round.

If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.

Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.

The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.

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1932: Asbury Respus, North Carolina serial killer

3 comments January 8th, 2016 Meaghan

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

On this date in North Carolina, a middle-aged man named Asbury Respus was executed for the murder of nine-year-old Vera DeWitt Leonard.

And that wasn’t all: though virtually forgotten today, Respus was a serial killer with eight confessed murders to his name.

He claimed that he fell from a barn rafter as a youth and was never quite the same after that, being prone to “spells” of homicidal rage. This story may well have been true; he had a noticeable indentation in his skull.

According to Respus’s confession, he killed his first and second victims in Northampton County in the early 1900s. Their names were Lizzie Banks, whom he shot, and Zenie Britt, whom he beat to death with a stick. The third victim was Becky Storr, killed in Boydton, Virginia around 1910; she too had been bludgeoned with a stick.

These early murders are attested only by Respus’s own confession; the first verifiable homicide by his hand took place in 1912. Sentenced to 15 years for manslaughter in the shooting death of a Northampton County man named Ed D. Wynne, Respus escaped from a road gang in 1916 and began life as a drifter.

They can’t have hunted this fugitive very hard. He never went far, always staying in the vicinity of Greensboro, North Carolina.

All four victims prior to his incarceration had been African Americans, as was Respus himself. On January 14, 1918, Respus crossed the color line to axe to death a 56-year-old white woman named Jennie Brown in her home, which he then burned to the ground. So thoroughly did his arson consume the premises that no evidence of a crime remained … leaving Respus free to continue his murder spree. From here on out, by whatever happenstance, all victims were white.

On July 22, 1920, he came across a little boy named Robert Neal Osborne and drowned him in a stream, just for kicks. Again he got lucky: little Robert’s death was recorded as accidental. On July 17, 1925, he murdered 80-year-old widow Eunice Stephenson by striking her on the head and hanging her body from a ceiling beam. This homicide was recognized as such but went unsolved for years.

Vera Leonard was Respus’s youngest female victim and his undoing. Respus may have killed her with rape on his mind. As it was, he went with his old standby, a blunt instrument to the head; afterwards, he burned her body “to a char.” He did not blame his “homicidal spells” for Vera’s murder but instead said he’d been out of his mind on drugs.

Respus expressed gratitude that he was going to his death. “I’d rather he dead and in heaven,” he said, “than here on earth being tormented to death.”


It was a busy day for U.S. executioners. Headlines from the Jan. 8, 1932 edition of the New York Sun.

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1900: The private, decent, and humane execution of a human being named George Smiley

Add comment January 8th, 2015 Headsman

George Smiley’s execution in the Arizona Territory on this date in 1900 was a month late owing to a public relations debacle.

The first and only man ever hanged in Navajo County, Smiley had killed a railroad section foreman.

As his scheduled December 8 execution approached, sheriff Frank Wattron garlanded the routine invitation he was required to send to the official witnesses with a bit more exuberance than was usual for the genre.

Holbrook, Arizona ... 1899.</p>
<p>Mr. .....</p>
<p>You are hereby cordially invited to attend the hanging of one</p>
<p>GEORGE SMILEY, MURDERER.</p>
<p>His soul will be swung into eternity on Dec. 8, 1899, at 2 o'clock, p.m. sharp.</p>
<p>Latest improved methods in the art of scientific strangulation will be employed and everything possible will be done to make the proceedings cheerful and the execution a success.</p>
<p>F.J. WATTRON,<br />
Sheriff of Navajo County

The jaunty, gilt-edged communique found its way into the hands of newsmen who soon reported it coast to coast.

U.S. President William McKinley — Wattron’s ultimate boss, since Arizona was a pre-statehood federal territory at this point — was not amused by the officer’s jollity, and ordered a 30-day reprieve for Smiley and a do-over with a little solemnity this time for Wattron.

The sheriff’s compliance was not altogether in the spirit of the directive. On the eve of the hanging, when it was much too late for news cycles to create any upstairs blowback, he dispatched a black-framed invitation dripping in sarcastic gravity.

Revised Statutes of Arizona, Penal Code, Title X, Section 1849, Page 807, makes it obligatory on sheriff to issue invitations to executions, form (unfortunately) not prescribed.

Holbrook, Arizona

Jan. 7, 1900.

With feelings of profound sorrow and regret, I hereby invite you to attend and witness the private, decent and humane execution of a human being; name, George Smiley, crime, murder.

The said George Smiley will be executed on Jan. 8, 1900, at 2 o’clock p.m.

You are expected to deport yourself in a respectful manner, and any “flippant” or “unseemly” language or conduct on your part will not be allowed. Conduct, on anyone’s part, bordering on ribaldry and tending to mar the solemnity of the occasion will not be tolerated.

F.J. Wattron,
Sheriff of Navajo County

I would suggest that a committee, consisting of Governor Murphy, Editors Dunbar, Randolph and Hull, wait on our next legislature and have a form of invitation to executions embodied in our laws.

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2013: Rizana Nafeek, Sri Lankan maid

2 comments January 9th, 2014 Headsman

A year ago today, a blindfolded, white-clad Rizana Nafeek had her head chopped off in public in Dawadmy, near the Saudi capital of Riyadh.

Rizana Nafeek, a Sri Lankan, was among the numerous foreign laborers routinely imported to Saudi Arabia for domestic work. There are an estimated 1.5 million migrant domestic workers in Saudi Arabia from South Asia (especially Sri Lanka), Nepal, Indonesia, East Africa, and the Philippines. Most are employed via the kafala (“sponsorship”) system that places their host in an almost lord-like position of authority.

Such workers are excluded from Saudi Arabia’s labor protections, and as a result stand vulnerable to horrifying abuse.* Household heads often confiscate these workers’ passports, and in some cases have subjected their domestic employees to rape, beatings, wage confiscation, and work weeks of 100-plus hours. One Sri Lankan woman had nails driven into her hands when she complained about overwork.

Rizana Nafeek hardly had time to find out whether any of these perquisites were in store for her. Not long after she arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2005 hoping to make enough money as a domestic drudge to move her impoverished family into a house, she had bottle-feeding duties for her host family’s infant foisted upon her. Nafeek had no training in caring for infants.

In May 2005, that child began choking while in Rizana’s care, and her panicked shouts summoned the mother. By the time the mother arrived, the infant had fallen unconscious, and the upset family immediately handed over their maid to the police, accusing her of strangling the baby.

This was the victim for whom Nafeek was decapitated, and also perhaps an illustration of tunnel vision in law enforcement. It’s quite doubtful whether there was ever any objective basis for supposing a homicide, but the fact that this was the color the family gave to events in the horror of the moment set in motion all the ensuing events.

During the investigation leading up to her 2007 trial and condemnation, Nafeek confessed to smothering the child — but she would later claim this confession was tortured out of her, and that the baby simply started choking on its bottle. (There was never a post-mortem on the dead baby.)

Opaque as the Saudi Arabian criminal justice system is, it’s got ample reputation for obtaining confessions by violence, and for mistreating migrant workers. And the accused had scant legal representation and no translator when she was tried for her life in a Saudi court.

After her conviction, it would also emerge that, order to land her the gig, Nafeek’s Sri Lankan recruiting agency falsified her papers to bump her age up past the legal minimum of 21. Rizana Nafeek arrived in Saudi Arabia carrying a passport that said she was born in 1982, making her 23 years old when she committed the supposed murder … but her birth certificate said that she was born in 1988, and was still a minor when the “murder” took place.

As an international clemency push developed for the potentially-innocent underaged migrant worker, the Saudi government strongly rejected its critics’ charges.

Noting that the dead infant’s family refused repeated blandishments of “blood money” to exercise its right to grant clemency, Riyadh officially “deplore[d] the statements made” by Rizana’s supporters “over the execution of a Sri Lankan maid who had plotted and killed an infant by suffocating him to death, one week after she arrived in the kingdom.”

More sympathetic Saudis, undoubtedly meaning well, offered Rizana Nafeek’s family cash compensation after the young woman was beheaded. That money, too, was angrily refused.

“I will not accept any gifts from the Saudis or the Saudi government which murdered my daughter,” mother Saiyadu Farina told a Sri Lankan newspaper. That anger was widely shared in Sri Lanka; Colombo even recalled its Saudi ambassador in protest.

That’s as may be, but money is sure to carry the argument at the end of the day. Wage remittances by overseas laborers are a massive boon to the island nation, amounting to $6.3 billion in 2012 — 8.8% of the Sri Lankan economy. And Saudi Arabia remains the single largest employer (pdf) of Sri Lankans abroad.

As of the time of Rizana Nafeek’s execution, at least 45 other foreign domestics, most of them Indonesians, were also awaiting execution on Saudi Arabia’s death row.

* Ill treatment of migrant domestic workers is a phenomenon elsewhere in the Middle East, and elsewhere around the world.

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1690: Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov, stolnik

Add comment January 8th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1690, the Russian stolnik (an administrative office in the Russian court) Andrei Ilyich Bezobrazov was put to death with the magicians he allegedly contracted to bewitch Tsar Peter the Great.

Whatever its other sins, Russia enjoys a reputation for having largely steered clear of the frightful witch-hunts that broke out elsewhere in Europe. Certainly tsars issued many decrees against witchcraft and even prescribed the death penalty in law. But unlike courts in western Europe, Russia does not seem ever to have folded the entire swath of extra-Christian folk beliefs and everyday peasant “magic” together into a juridical theory of omnipresent diabolical terrorism stretching from the neighborhood midwife to the Prince of Darkness himself. Perhaps for that reason, its historical record of witch persecutions presents fewer and more scattered data points.

Elites, write Valerie Kivelson and Jonathan Shaheen,* “demonstrated no interest in formulating a systematized or theorized framework for explaining the uncanny power of magic [and] they also made no effort in their courtrooms to unearth evidence of such a framework … Instead of pursuing connections to the devil, Muscovite judges exerted themselves to track the lineages and results of magic: Who taught you? Whom have you taught? Whom have you bewitched? The judges’ concerns were concrete and this-worldly: who were the victims and who were the victimizers?”

Unfortunately for Bezobrazov, his victim was the tsar himself.

Bezobrazov allegedly obtained the service of “sorcerers and witches” who worked magic “on bones, on money and on water” to enspell the new 17-year-old sovereign during the uncertain period after Peter threw off the regency of his older sister Sophia. Despite Peter’s ultimate reputation as Russia’s great westernizer, the immediate effect of this transition was an oppressive interregnum wherein conservative religious interests took advantage of the new sovereign’s distraction from internal Russian politics to reassert themselves violently.

For Bezobrazov, political turnover augured personal uncertainty. The innocent explanation for his “witchcraft” was invoking a little ritual in hopes of catching a favorable assignment in Peter the Great’s new Russia. It didn’t work.

Bezobrazov was beheaded on Red Square on this date at the same time two folk healers went to the stake with their magic talismans and healing herbs at a swamp across the Moskva from the Kremlin. An essay in this Festschrift describes what it’s like to be a peasant folk healer suddenly under investigation for regicide.

Dorofei Prokofiev … had treated animals belonging to the Bezobrazov household. But when arrested and interrogated, Dorofei did not identify himself as a “sorcerer,” but rather as a posadskii chelovek (artisan), specifically a horse-trainer (konoval) and a blood-letter (rudomet’). He admitted to practicing bean divination and palm reading in addition to treating the illnesses of children and adults with herbs and incantations. His bag contained beans, incense (for protecting brides and grooms from sorcerers, Dorofei said), and a variety of herbs. The herb bogoroditskaia (= royal fern) he gathered himself on St. John’s Day, while reciting the charm “whatever you, herb, are good for, be good for that.” But he denied ever casting a spell to harm the sovereign, and he claimed not to be acquainted with Andrei Bezobrazov — a lie that was quickly uncovered when Dorofei was subjected to torture. At that point Dorofei changed his story: Bezobrazov had asked him to cast a spell on the tsar, but only to make him feel favorably towards Bezobrazov, not to damage the sovereign’s health. Dorofei gave his interrogators examples of the incantations that he used in fortune-telling, all intertwined invocations of Christian figures with sympathetic magic. In short, Dorofei tried to rescue himself by claiming that his healing and fortune-telling activities were all well-intentioned. But the investigators, and Peter himself, were convinced of Bezobrazov’s guilt, which meant Dorofei was guilty as well. Bezobrazov was beheaded, and Dorofei was burned at the stake as a witch.

For everyday folks like Dorofei Prokovie, the author notes, “well-positioned patrons could be either a source of protection or of danger.”

According to Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Russia, which is also the source of the January 8 date, Bezobrazov’s wife was punitively tonsured for not reporting the “plot” and several other of Bezobrazov’s peasants were knouted and sent to Siberia.

* “Prosaic Witchcraft and Semiotic Totalitarianism: Muscovite Magic Reconsidered” in Slavic Review, vol. 70, no. 1 (Spring 2011)

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1813: The Yorkshire Luddites, for murdering William Horsfall

1 comment January 8th, 2013 Headsman

This is the bicentennial of the hanging of three Luddites for the murder of manufacturer William Horsfall.

“Luddite” has come to refer imprecisely to a wide range of anti-mechanization machine-wrecking in early 19th century Britain; however, it’s most properly applied to a specific 1811-1816 movement.

While often understood casually as a sort of mindless technophobia, wreckers — Luddites and otherwise — actually had material labor grievances. New more efficient power looms reduced skilled workers to the ranks of unskilled subsistence labor, or to those of the superfluous unemployed.

With trade unionism illegal (and severely repressed), their means of resistance were of a desperate character. Lord Byron, almost alone in Parliament, rose to defend them: “These men were willing to dig, but the spade was in other hands; they were not ashamed to beg, but there was none to relieve them. Their own means of subsistence were cut off; all other employments pre-occupied; and their excesses, however to be deplored and condemned, can hardly be the subject of surprise.”

Hence, Byron sarcastically remarked, “new capital punishments must be devised, new snares of death must be spread, for the wretched mechanic who is famished into guilt.” Parliament did indeed extend its capital statutes to the protection of these new looms.


Via

“Wrecking,” in the analysis of the late Eric Hobsbawm, “was simply a technique of trade unionism in the period before, and during the early phases of, the industrial revolution.”

Hobsbawm quotes a Nottingham town clerk describing the way textile manufacturers “acquire entire control of their workmen” by putting them to work on the owners’ power looms rather than hiring out workers who use their own looms. “Perhaps the most effectual manner in which the combination [read: proto-union] could coerce them was their former manner of carrying on war by destroying their frames.”

And the descriptor “war” was not far off.

The Luddites — so named for legendary loom-smasher Ned Ludd — proliferated in 1811-1812. Beginning in Nottingham with a protest against falling wages signed by General Ned Ludd and the Army of Redressers, they tapped a wellspring of discontent.

It was a time of war, of economic crisis, of spiking wheat prices whose rise to an 1812 record peak further immiserated those who scraped to earn a living by the sweat of their brow. A generation after the French Revolution, with Napoleon rampant on the continent, English elites had reason to fear their own legitimacy stood on unstable ground.* In 1811, the king even went mad.

And they thrive well who from the poor
Have snatched the bread of penury,
And heap the houseless wanderer’s store
On the rank pile of luxury.

-Percy Bysshe Shelly, “The Devil’s Walk” (1812)

From their birthplace in Nottingham, Luddite societies spread out through textile country, conspiring by moonlight to break into factories and smash up frames or commit other acts of industrial sabotage. (There’s a pdf timeline here) Byron, the Luddites’ defender, owned that the night before he departed a recent visit to Nottingham, “forty frames had been broken the preceding evening as usual, without resistance and without detection.”

Terrified manufacturers — some were known to have armored their establishments with what amount to siege fortifications; others, to outfit homes with early panic rooms as bolt-holes in the event of a Luddite attack — met this mob action violently. Westminster put 12,000 troops into Luddite country to fight the wreckers.

And the wreckers fought back.

William Horsfall, owner of a Marsden wool mill with 400 employees, had vowed to “ride up to his saddle in Luddite blood” … which promise gave a poetic twist to his actual fate: while riding on Huddersfield‘s Crosland Moor** in April 1812, a group of Luddites lying in wait opened fire on him and shot Horsfall through the groin.

“As soon as he fell after being wounded the inhuman populace surrounding him reproached him with having been the oppressor of the poor — they did not offer assistance,” an officer later reported. “Nor did any one attempt to pursue or secure the assassins who were seen to retire to an adjoining wood.” A fellow-manufacturer helped Horsfall to an inn, where he expired painfully 38 hours later.

It was several months before the powers that be were able to crack it.

Eventually, the energetic Huddersfield magistrate Joseph Radcliffe† was able to exploit the threat of hanging to force a Luddite cropper‡ into impeaching his confederates in the plot. This investigation is covered in marvelous detail at the Luddite Bicentenary blog, an outstanding resource on the period in general, but for our purposes we’ll sum up to say that the hunt for Horsfall’s killers wound up zeroing in on George Mellor, Thomas Smith, and William Thorpe.

They were tried over 11 hours on a single day, January 6, 1813 (summary: 1, 2, 3, 4).

That was a Wednesday.

That Friday, the three hanged in their manacles behind York Castle under heavy military guard to forestall any possible rescue, having never admitted any part in the murder. The authorities judiciously eschewed a more demonstrative (and potentially riot-inducing) execution at the scene of the crime.

“The number of people assembled was much greater than is usual in York, on those melancholy occasions; but not the slightest indication of tumult prevailed, and the greatest silence reigned during the whole of this solemn and painful scene,” the Leeds Mercury reported§ — and darkly explicated the intended lesson of the scene for other machine-wreckers.

all those who may have been so far infatuated as to become members of such societies should, from this moment, and by one common consent, desist from taking another step in furtherance of their objects. They must now see that they have stood on the brink of a frightful precipice, and that another step might have plunged them into that gulph which has overwhelmed their less fortunate associates.

The mailed fist deployed against wreckers in 1812-1813 did indeed smash the movement. Still, sporadic Luddite attacks would continue as late as 1816, and Luddite veterans went at the fore of the 1817 Pentrich Rising … just outside the place it all began, Nottingham.

* It was in just this period — in fact, only a few days after William Horsfall’s murder — that Prime Minister Spencer Perceval was assassinated. Given the conditions abroad in the land, many an elite feared upon first notice of this event a revolutionary rising … although Perceval’s killer turned out to be a deranged merchant whose confused private grievance had nothing to do with Britain’s social tensions.

** Not far from the spot of Horsfall’s murder — and a standard stop on every present-day Luddite commemorative walk — you’ll still find William Horsfall Street.

† Radcliffe’s exertions in the war against the Luddites secured for his family a still-extant baronetcy.

‡ Benjamin Walker, the Luddite informer who sent Mellor, Smith, and Thorpe to the gallows, was denied the advertised £2000 reward and wound up a beggar in London.

§ Leeds Mercury report via a reprint in the London Times of Jan. 12, 1813. (Also see this excerpt.)

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1908: John Boyd, by John Radclive

Add comment January 8th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1908, John Boyd managed six fitful hours of sleep, had a breakfast of toast, poached eggs and tea, and then went to the Don Jail gallows for murdering his paramour’s rival suitor.

Canada had long before ceased public executions. Prior to Boyd’s execution, Don Jail hangings had occurred in a jail yard — technically behind prison walls, but easily peeped upon by curiosity-seekers willing to obtain higher ground. Boyd’s execution introduced a new privacy measure: it was the first of 26 hangings to occur in an interior chamber completely away from public eyes, the same place where Canada eventually held its last hangings in 1962.

But apart from this minor milestone, we notice on this date the hurried and disturbed departure of prolific hangman John Radclive. “Another poor soul gone,” he was overheard to say as he left.

Radclive is the subject of an empathetic Toronto Star profile that’s well worth the read.

He was Canada’s first professional hangman, with 69 recorded executions and perhaps just as many which the uneven documentation of the day failed to note. Predecessor of the better-known Arthur Ellis, Radclive learned his trade direct from William Marwood, and was put on the federal payroll as a full-time executioner in 1892.

He had a swagger in his ill-starred step back then: he once started a brawl boasting in a pub that he had “come to hang a Frenchman, and hoped it would not be the last.” By the time he got to Boyd and beyond, he was ready for the last. Alcoholism had wasted his nerves (and his liver: he died of cirrhosis in 1911). In 1910 Radclive told a psychiatrist,

“Now at night when I lie down, I start up with a roar as victim after victim comes up before me. I can see them on the trap, waiting a second before they meet their Maker. They haunt me and taunt me until I am nearly crazy with an unearthly fear.”

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1603: Not Tommaso Campanella

Add comment January 8th, 2010 Headsman

The wise were forced to live as the mad were accustomed, in order to shun death, such that the greatest lunatic now possesses the royal burdens. The wise now lived alone with their wisdom, behind closed doors, applauding only in public the others’ mad and twisted caprices.

-Tommaso Campanella

On this date in 1603, freaky-deaky Dominican philosopher Tommaso Campanella drew a life sentence — avoiding execution by dint of a painfully convincing performance of insanity.

Campanella had some problematically heterodox notions about the sun (namely, that it was going to consume the earth) and everything under it, and had had a recent scrape with the Inquisition.

What really got him in trouble was trucking with a Calabrian conspiracy to overthrow Spanish domination, apparently a product of the monk’s millenarian anticipation of a sort of proto-communist revolution.

Campanella was a strange guy, but this was quite a far-out plot.

As Joan Kelly-Gadol writes in this fine tome,

This took place, let it be noted, after he had written two works advocating a Papal monarchy for Italy and the world and two works promoting the interests of the Spanish Empire also in Italy and throughout the world.

Past performance is no guarantee of future returns. Once the conspiracy was betrayed,

Campanella was imprisoned … in the Castel Nuovo, one of the principal fortresses in which the Spaniards maintained a military garrison. He was arraigned before the civil tribunal for rebellion and before the ecclesiastical tribunal for heresy. His “examination” which began in January 1600 was gruesome. He claimed innocence in his first interrogation before the civil tribunal, was thrown into a dungeon, actually a cleft in the bedrock of the Castle, to remain there for seven days. Then followed torture. He “confessed,” admitting that he preached about the coming political upheaval but denying that he was part of a conspiracy to bring it about …

His desperation at this point can be gauged by the fact that by April of 1600 he began to feign madness. The ecclesiastical action against him began now, and he persisted in this attitude of insanity through three interrogations, including an hour of torture … On the fourth and fifth of June 1601, he was subjected to the cruel torture of “the vigil” to test whether his insanity was genuine. This was the usual torture of the rope, suspending the body of the victim by his tied hands over a blade which cut into his flesh whenever he yielded to the strain of holding himself in the air; but the vigil refined this cruelty by continuing it for forty hours. Campanella endured the ordeal without breaking.

And it wasn’t just a feat of toughness to beat the torturer at his own game, impressive as it is on those terms alone: Campanella pulled off a genius gambit exploiting the Inquisition’s own legal machinery to duck the separate capital charges he faced in civil and ecclesiastical court.

Joseph Scalzo’s “Campanella, Foucault, and Madness in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”,* an academic paper that reads like a thriller, narrates Campanella’s “dangerous competition” with his persecutors.

In fine: on Easter Sunday 1600,** as he was approaching conviction and condemnation in his state trial for treason, Campanella began his insanity ploy, successfully forcing a delay in that case and initiating his separate church trial for heresy.

Then, by remaining stubbornly committed to what most of his examiners believed was a charade, Campanella won … by forcing them to inflict that juridically determinative 40-hour “vigil” torture.

the jurisprudence of the time accorded torture so much force, such as to annul all other proofs and “to purge circumstantial evidence”; if the torture had been vigorous and unusual. The accused came, all the more to avail himself of the result obtained, according to the scholarship of the criminologists most in vogue. Thus, Campanella had judicially to be regarded as insane, although everyone was persuaded that he probably simulated insanity. The consequence, in the tribunal of the Holy Office, was not indifferent: He was a “relapsed heretic,” and even if repentant, he would have been disgraced and consigned to the secular court of justice, which would have executed him; being mad, he could no longer suffer condemnation, and in the circumstance in which he might already have been condemned, he would have been spared the death penalty, to reason and repent.

(this is Scalzo’s quotation of Luigi Amabile, an Italian who wrote the book on Campanella; I have been unable to find the Amabile original online.)

Home free.

Having reached this judicial safe haven, Campanella soon — in fact, according to the man who tortured him, literally on the walk from the vigil back to his cell — resumed a recognizable rationality.

He’d languish in prison until 1626 (a few years after he got out, he had to flee to France), but he made the most of it. Campanella wrote his magnum opus, the utopian City of the Sun, while awaiting his sentence in 1602. A number of other works on a wide array of subjects — science, philosophy, theology, political governance (he returned to giving the Spanish empire supportive advice), a vigorous defense of Galileo — were also composed during his 27 years under lock and key.

Campanella’s visionary anticipation of radical egalitarianism would, like Thomas More‘s, help shape the utopian literary genre. But Campanella’s take, while still a theocratic one, lent itself to distinctly more subversive interpretation.†

For example, this Brezhnev-era Soviet essay‡ (unearthed and translated by Executed Today friend and sometime guest-blogger Sonechka) decants the Dominican’s heretical notions into Marxist orthodoxy.

How many times were the communists denounced by their enemies for this “commonality of wives”! Scientific communism, certainly, is not responsible for the figments of a monk like Campanella. But it is instructive to penetrate his logic. It is not commodification or dehumanization that hides behind Campanella’s “commonality of wives”. The women of the “City of Sun” have the same rights as men … The “commonality of women” is equivalent to the “commonality of men” on the basis of mutual equality. That is why, though [we are] decisively rejecting this type of family-free communism, it is necessary to consider who stands on the higher moral grounds — Campanella’s woman, alien to deceit and pretense, or a false bourgeois woman, whose lot in life is adultery and legalized prostitution.

Ultimately, this wild man not only got the high moral ground: he got to die in bed. Once in a while, we get a happy(ish) ending.

So although it actually has nothing to do with Tommaso, “La Campanella”“Little Bell”, a Paganini violin concerto — allows us here at this blog (in common with our day’s hero) an atypically soothing* denouement.

* Joseph Scalzo, “Campanella, Foucault, and Madness in Late-Sixteenth Century Italy”, The Sixteenth Century Journal, Vol. 21, No. 3 (Autumn, 1990)

** Campanella’s Easter 1600 madness was initiated only a few weeks after fellow intellectual omnivore Giordano Bruno was burned for heresy up the road in Rome. Strictly coincidence.

† Since so much of Campanella’s work was produced while the author was under duress — fighting capital charges, applying for clemency and release — it remains disputable just which parts of it can be taken to represent his real beliefs.

‡ L. Vorob’ev. “Utopija i dejstvitelnost”. (“Utopia and Reality”) in Utopicheskij roman XVI-XVII vekov (Utopian Novel of XVI-XVII century); Series “Biblioteka vsemirnoj literatury”, Khudozhestevnnaja literature, Moscow, 1971, p. 19.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Artists,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Famous,God,Heresy,History,Intellectuals,Italy,Naples,Not Executed,Notable Jurisprudence,Religious Figures,Spain,Torture,Treason

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1864: Two Dodds, as two spies, in two states, and twice botched

2 comments January 8th, 2009 Headsman

On January 8, 1864, young David Owen Dodd was hanged in Little Rock for spying on federal troops … and cavalryman Ephraim Dodd (no known relation) suffered the same fate for the same crime in Knoxville.

Just one of those strange coincidences.

Ephraim Dodd

Ephraim Shelby Dodd is the subject of an outstanding HistoryNet profile whose contents this blog can not so much improve upon as summarize.

A member of Terry’s Texas Rangers (“men who ride like Arabs and fight like devils”) Dodd was captured in December 1863 and convicted by his diary — a particularly harsh reading of his diary in which a reference to having passed himself off as a Yankee was interpreted as evidence of espionage. (The diary is available online and as part of a book on Terry’s Rangers.)

Knoxville worthies rallied to save him and Ephraim Dodd insisted upon his innocence, but not so vociferously that he displayed any terror of his fate.

Do not grieve for me, my dear parents, for I am leaving a world full of crime and sin for one of perfect bliss.

The hanging itself wasn’t bliss, exactly, despite a well-planned soundtrack.

From the “Death March” the music gradually slid into “Mary’s Dream,” and then we were carried back by the magic of the plaintive notes to juvenile days; to visions of “Sandy far at Sea,” and to the sad cadence of that fading refrain,

“When, soft and low, a voice she heard
Saying, Mary, weep no more for me.”

The solemn march, the wailing notes of the fife, and perhaps above all the calm, unmoved, manly bearing of the prisoner — so we thought — produced a mournful impression upon the spectators.

Points earned on artistic merit, however, were deducted for technique.

At a signal the bolt was now withdrawn, the culprit fell, but the cotton rope broke by the sudden tension, and the man lay stretched and stunned upon the frozen ground below. A mummer of horror, mingled with expressions of pity, ran through the assembled crowd. Recovering for an instant from the shock — for his neck was not broken — he said — perhaps incoherently: “Release me quick, if you please.” For some ten minutes the unfortunate man lay thus upon his back, without moving a muscle. Meantime the officers and men, whose painful duty it was to see to the execution of the law, adjusted this time two parts of the same rope instead of one, and the half-conscious man was borne up the fatal steps a second time, being partly supported upon the drop until the double noose had been adjusted. Not a word or sign of suffering all this time escaped his lips. In another moment the drop fell, and prisoner’s form now hung by the neck — the knot behind the head. Death finally ensued by strangulation. In ten minutes, Dr. Cogswell, the officiating surgeon, pronounced life extinct, and the body was taken down and buried.

David Owen Dodd

A few hours later and 500 miles down the way, the entirely unrelated hanging of David Owen Dodd proceeded in Little Rock, Ark.

David Dodd’s final resting place at Mount Holly cemetery. Image courtesy of Richard Theilig.

Only 17 at his hanging and not physically robust enough to get his brains blown out at Gettysburg, Dodd was sent by his father on a business trip across Union lines — everything legit, and carrying a pass — but got busted with morse code notations of Union troop strength in the city.

Unlike Ephraim, who was basically a normal soldier thrust into incriminating-looking circumstances by the chance of war, young David Dodd was rightly accused.

He didn’t bother protesting his innocence, but he also kept mum about his contacts. (Suggestively, a teenage girl and her father were whisked out of town and kept under guard in Vermont for the rest of the war.) That proud silence has won him quite a reputation in Arkansas as the Boy Hero of the Confederacy.

But similarities between the condemned men extended beyond their names. David’s parting filial reassurance could pass for a paraphrase of Ephraim’s.

[D]o not weep for me for I will be better off in heaven. I will soon be out of this world of sorrow and trouble.

And the hanging itself, conducted in a tense atmosphere, was likewise a botched job. In this case, the slight young man didn’t fall hard enough to break his neck, but did fall far enough to get his tiptoes on the ground, initiating an agonizingly protracted strangulation which the soldiers on detail expedited by (accounts differ) pulling on David Dodd’s legs and/or pulling up on the rope.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arkansas,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Children,Confederates,Death Penalty,Espionage,Execution,Famous,Hanged,History,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Soldiers,Spies,Tennessee,U.S. Military,USA,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1697: Thomas Aikenhead

2 comments January 8th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1697, Scottish medical student Thomas Aikenhead was hanged on the road from Edinburgh to Leith for blasphemy, an already-archaic punishment inflicted for what reads like headstrong youthful atheism of a decidedly garden variety.

Aikenhead partook of the times’ emerging (albeit forbidden) store of humanist and skeptical literature, and chatted most unguardedly with University of Edinburgh “friends” who tattled to authorities to the extent that, not content with testifying against him, one published a pamphlet demanding the offender “atone with blood, the affronts of heaven’s offended throne.”

Said authorities scarcely elevated the dignity of the temporal throne in their own eagerness to swing a sledgehammer against a fly, trying the young hothead for his life under a Restoration law which by its own letter should not have lodged him in mortal peril until his third offense.

Thou Aikenhead, the indictment thundered in the second person:

shakeing off all fear of God and regaird to his majesties lawes, have now for more than a twelvemoneth by past…[vented] your wicked blasphemies against God and our Saviour Jesus Christ, and against the holy Scriptures, and all revealled religione…you said and affirmed, that divinity or the doctrine of theologie was a rapsidie of faigned and ill-invented nonsense, patched up partly of the morall doctrine of philosophers, and pairtly of poeticall fictions and extravagant chimeras

He called the Old Testament “Ezra’s fables”, Jesus the “Imposter Christ” (preferring Mahomet), and anticipated the extirpation of Christianity.

It was a bare two weeks from conviction to execution. Accounts of Aikenhead’s last days seem inconsistent; the prisoner recanted, possibly sincerely, but the Church — explicitly handed the power to at least reprieve him by its intervention — demanded hurried and “vigorous execution.”

Macaulay disgustedly pictured the scene:

The preachers who were the boy’s murderers crowded round him at the gallows, and, while he was struggling in the last agony, insulted Heaven with prayers more blasphemous than any thing that [Aikenhead] had ever uttered.

The singular punishment meted out this day — the last hanging for blasphemy throughout the United Kingdom — cast a long shadow into the coming century’s remarkable Scottish renaissance and lingers even today as a suggestion to some just how near the menace of theocracy might yet remain.

And England’s blasphemy laws? They’re only now facing repeal.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Milestones,Notable Jurisprudence,Public Executions,Ripped from the Headlines,Scotland

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