1616: “A gentellwoeman” by exposure, for a eunuch liaison

Add comment July 13th, 2014 Headsman

The English diplomat Sir Thomas Roe, envoy to the Mughal Empire from 1615 to 1619 during the reign of Jahangir, recorded in his journal* the unfortunate fate this date of a nameless woman for being caught rendezvousing with a palace eunuch.

This day a gentellwoeman of Normalls was taken in the kings house in some action with an Eunuch. Another Capon that loved her kylld him. The Poore Woeman was sett up to the Arme pitts in the Earth hard ramed, her feete tyde to a stake, to abyde 3 dayes and 2 nights without any sustenance, her head and armes bare, exposed to the sunns violence: if shee died not in that tyme she should bee pardoned. The Eunuch was Condemned to the Eliphantes. This damsell yeelded in Pearle, Jewelles, and ready mony 160,000 rupias.

That this bit character who does not even merit a name here left such a fortune surely testifies to the Mughal Empire’s famously astounding trade wealth.

Roe does not disclose how long the condemned woman managed to survive, but the separate memoir of Roe’s chaplain Edward Terry confirms that she succumbed to exposure well before the elapse of the pardonable three days. (The two seem to have received differing intelligence on the execution method of the eunuch, despite Terry’s indication that it transpired practically in the English mission’s backyard.)

Now for the disposition of that King, it ever seemed unto me to be composed of extremes; for sometimes he was barbarously cruel, and at other times he would seem to be exceedingly fair and gentle.

For his cruelties, he put one of his women to a miserable death; one of his women he had formerly touched and kept company with, but now she was superannuated; for neither himself nor nobles (as they say) come near their wives or women, after they exceed the age of thirty years. The fault of that woman was this; the Mogul upon a time found her and one of his eunuchs kissing one another; and for this very thing, the King presently gave command that a round hole should be made in the earth, and that her body should be put into that hole, where she should stnad with her head only above ground, and the earth to be put in again unto her close round about her, that so she might stand in the parching sun ’till the extreme hot beams thereof did kill her; in which torment she lived one whole day, and the night following, and almost ’till the next noon, crying out most lamentably, while she was able to speak, in her language, as the Shumanite’s child did in his, 2 King. 4. “Ah my head, my head!” which horrid execution, or rather murder, was acted near our house; where the eunuch, by the command of the said King, was brought very near the place where this poor creature was thus buried alive, and there in her sight cut all into pieces.

* Published as The embassy of Sir Thomas Roe to the court of the Great Mogul, 1615-1619, as narrated in his journal and correspondence. This vignette is from volume 1; there is also a volume 2

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1955: Ruth Ellis, the last woman hanged in England

Add comment July 13th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1955, Albert Pierrepoint escorted the alluringly tragic Ruth Ellis to the gallows at Holloway Prison — the last woman ever hanged in Great Britain.

The former hostess had tracked her inconstant and abusive lover David Blakely to a Hampstead pub a few months before — getting the ride, and the murder weapon, from her unrequited hanger-on Desmond Cussen — and shot Blakely dead on the street. Five bullets: the last, a coup de grace. (Another missed entirely and winged a passerby.)

A bitterly controversial case from the moment it entered the public eye, Ellis’s hanging bolstered the movement to abolish Britain’s death penalty. Juridically, however, it was resolved in the blink of an eye when a crown’s attorney cross-examined the murderess:

Christmas Humphreys: Mrs. Ellis, when you fired that revolver at close range into the body of David Blakely what did you intend to do?

Ellis: It was obvious that when I shot him I intended to kill him.

Book CoverThe jury, which never heard that Blakely regularly beat his killer (including once to induce a miscarriage), needed 14 minutes to convict her.

We’re pleased to mark this anniversary with Carol Ann Lee, author of a recent biography A Fine Day for a Hanging: The Real Ruth Ellis Story. (Here’s a review. Also check out two long pieces Lee wrote about Ruth Ellis for the Daily Mail: 1, 2)

ET: I think at a certain point in time, everyone in Great Britain would have known who Ruth Ellis was, and quite a few abroad, too. How true is that still, nearing 60 years after her execution?

I think her name is still quite familiar, to be honest.

When I began researching the book, everyone I discussed it with either already knew the very basic facts of Ruth’s story, and at the very least that she was the last woman to be hanged in England. The 1985 biopic Dance with a Stranger left a big impression too, even though it wasn’t entirely faithful to Ruth’s character, making her seem much more hysterical a personality than she actually was, although I thought Miranda Richardson was brilliant in the role — as she always is!

What led you to the Ruth Ellis story?

I’ve always been interested in Ruth and that period in history — and I vividly remember going to see ‘Dance with a Stranger’ when it came out in the cinemas here. But it always struck me that her full story had never been told, particularly the last few months of her life after she shot David Blakely. And a couple of years ago there was quite an intense debate about bringing back capital punishment; Ruth’s name was always mentioned in relation to that particular argument, and I really felt it was time to explore her whole story.

What are the greatest misconceptions people have of her? Have her previous biographies and screen portrayals fed those misconceptions?

Without doubt, many people see Ruth as she was shown in ‘Dance with a Stranger’ — very screechy, out of control and violently jealous.

I think it’s true to say that she and David were both deeply jealous of each other (both giving the other reason to be so), but Ruth was not as hysterical as she was portrayed in the film. In fact, it was quite the opposite — the men were hysterical and it was Ruth who usually vented a sort of quiet fury. There is one scene in the film which shows her smashing the windows of David’s car and screaming in the street. Reading the original police statement about that night reveals a very different story; she was described as very calm and rational. There was no screaming, and although she did damage the vehicle, it was not remotely as it was shown in the film.

I think other adaptations have also done her a disservice. Ironically, probably the most accurate portrayal is in the film ‘Pierrepoint,’ where the character of Ruth appears for no more than a minute or two on screen.

I get the sense that Ruth was always running uphill against her class position, trying to climb a little higher than she could reach — right up to the end where her lover is a well-off cad and the rivals for the lover’s affection are his middle-class friends. What role did England’s class relations have in Ruth Ellis’s life and death, and in the way that others perceived her? Do they still shape the way we talk about her all these years later?

Class and politics played a huge role in Ruth’s life generally.

England was distinctly class-led at the time and when the case hit the headlines, she was described as a working-class floozie who attached herself to the upper-class David Blakely purely in order to hoist herself up the class ladder.

That couldn’t have been further from the truth; if she was only interested in using men to better herself socially, she would surely have married her sometime-lover Desmond Cussen, who was a much steadier prospect with money and property and who wanted very much to marry her. Ruth worked hard to better herself but she didn’t use the men she loved to do so.

And when it came to her trial, the class values of the time were heavy in the courtroom with the male barristers and judge and so on all very much men of the upper classes — and who viewed her accordingly. I hope we have got beyond all that nonsense now — but it does add a very distinct dimension to discussions of her case.

She was working as a hostess when she met David Blakely. What would a hostess do, who worked in this trade, and who were the clientele? Was it usual for “real” relationships to evolve? Do people still have this job in the same form as Ruth had it?

Hostessing in the clubs in which Ruth worked was quite straightforward — or it should have been, but there was Morris Conley to contend with, and he was quite a character.

Ruth’s basic job description was to look good and to chat to customers (mostly men) in the clubs, laugh at their jokes and keep them buying food and drink for as long as possible. Most hostesses were in their late teens and early twenties, working-class girls who thought the lifestyle was more glamorous than toiling in a factory or in a shop.

They were usually paid badly and relied on tips to make ends meet, but were given a dress allowance so that they could look as alluring as possible. The clientele mainly consisted of demobbed servicemen who suddenly seemed to have lost their attractiveness to women after the war — where once they had been heroes, by the late 1940s many of them were down on their luck and working as door-to-door salesmen, very lonely and eager to talk to pretty young girls about their war exploits.

The girls who worked for Morris Conley, like Ruth, were expected to sleep with the clients if that was asked of them, and often had to sleep with ‘Morrie’ and his less than respectable friends too. Many of them were very poor young women who lived in flats owned by Conley and his wife — and if they didn’t toe the line, they lost their jobs and their homes in one fell swoop.

Did real relationships evolve? Yes, they did, but very rarely. There are girls all over the world doing very similar jobs today — from London to Japan and everywhere in between too, no doubt.

You have this quote from Ruth about David Blakely: ‘I thought the world of him; I put him on the highest of pedestals. He could do nothing wrong and I trusted him implicitly.’ Ruth had an alcoholic, abusive father, and then she had two children from marriages with two different men that both fell apart — one from bigamy and abandonment, the second from alcoholism and domestic violence. Blakely himself cheated on her. Why wasn’t she more cynical about Blakely? If you take away the tragic ending to this particular relationship, was something like this a pattern she was doomed to keep repeating ad infinitum?

She loved him — it’s really as simple as that.

Although she obviously had a good degree of self-awareness and knew what David was and always would be, she truly loved him and for a time believed they had a future together. As for a pattern — I don’t know. Perhaps if she had met one good, steady man to whom she was attracted as much as she was to David, her life — and David’s too of course — might have been very different.

I’m going to phrase this inelegantly: what is the DEAL with Desmond Cussen?

Good question! I really think that he was as confused and tormented by everything that was happening as a result of Ruth’s and David’s relationship as Ruth herself.

I think he did love Ruth, and he tried hard to make things work with her, but he knew her heart was with David. His apparent lack of self-respect and backbone is baffling — quite why he kept ferrying her across London and out to Buckinghamshire in pursuit of David is a bit mystifying. I did question in the book why no one seemed to query his state of mind as much as Ruth’s — and as to whether he gave her the gun or not, knowing what she intended to do … I am sure he did, even though he must have known where it would end for Ruth herself.

Perhaps he hoped that with David out of the way, she would be reprieved and they could then have a life together. But I really don’t know!

Ruth’s legal defence was legendarily feeble. That said, I’m very interested in the barrister’s attempt to frame its insanity defense around feminine hysteria — “the effect of jealousy upon a female mind can so work as to unseat the reason and can operate to a degree in which a male mind is quite incapable of operating.” This was bound to be undermined by Ruth’s own calm and the statements about her intent to kill that she gave to police and in court. Was it the case that the law at the time didn’t have the instruments to situate Ruth’s context and state of mind, other than hysterical/not? Or could an abler barrister have presented a different story?

I think part of the difficulty is obviously that the defence of diminished responsibility was not introduced in the courts here until 1957 — largely as a direct result of this particular case.

Ruth’s lawyers tried to argue this as a defence for her to some extent, but it just wasn’t possible legally. That said, I think they served her quite badly and didn’t bring out so much that might have enabled the jury to see her crime in context. There was no mention of the abuse in her childhood, no mention of the violence she had suffered at the hands of her ex-husband and very little said about David’s own brutal treatment of her.

But Ruth herself did not seem to care much what happened in the courtroom, once it became evident that the story as she saw it — David’s friends having, in her view, deliberately destroyed the relationship between them — was not going to come to light. She gave up, and volunteered nothing that could have helped her, minimizing the violence to which she had been subjected and dismissing most of the questions put to her in a short sentence or two.

She also infamously replied to the prosecution’s question of what she intended to do when she set out to find David with the gun, “It is obvious when I shot him I intended to kill him.” That one line completely sealed her fate.

Despite all this, the public did seem to be shocked by Ruth Ellis’s hanging, and it’s supposed to have boosted the anti-death penalty campaign. If one may phrase it this way, were people shocked for the right reasons? How much did the symbolic “Ruth Ellis” that even her supporters among the general public had in view have to do with the real person as you understand her?

I think any case is always immeasurably more complex than it is presented in newspaper columns and headlines.

I think, again, the outcry at her execution has to be seen in context — people were becoming more and more opposed to the death penalty and there had been some very high-profile, contentious cases that really did cause a great deal of debate, anger, and distress: the hanging of Timothy Evans in 1950 and of Derek Bentley in 1953 for instance (both of whom were posthumously pardoned).

The fact that Ruth was a young, attractive, lively woman with two small children caused many people to question the validity of capital punishment. It was her death on the scaffold that gave the abolition movement its emotional spur.

What became of Ruth Ellis’s body after her hanging? And what became of her family and the others who were part of the story?

Ruth was buried in the confines of Holloway Prison after her execution, sharing her unmarked grave with four other women who had been hanged there. In 1971, when the prison was demolished and rebuilt, her body was released to her son for burial.

He had hoped to lay his mother to rest alongside David Blakely at the Holy Trinity churchyard in Penn but the vicar there would not allow it. Ruth was instead buried in the churchyard of St Mary’s in Amersham, a few miles away.

As to what became of her family: her son Andre (who was ten when Ruth was executed) was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a very young man and never came to terms with the loss of his mother. He committed suicide in 1982. Ruth’s daughter, Georgina, had quite a colourful life, becoming a successful model who was in the newspapers fairly often as part of the George Best ‘set.’ She married and had children and worked hard to win a posthumous pardon for her mother, of whom she spoke often. She died of cancer at the age of only 50.

As for Desmond Cussen: he emigrated to Australia and opened a flower shop there. He never married and became an alcoholic, dying in Perth on 8 May 1991 of pneumonia and organ failure following a fracture dislocation of the neck in a fall at his home.

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1708: Anne Harris, twice a hempen widow

1 comment July 13th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1708, a twenty-year-old shoplifter Anne Harris was hanged at Tyburn for serial larceny.

This young woman (“bidding adieu to everything that looked like virtue,” in the words of her Newgate Calendar entry) had picked up the tricks of her trade at least in part from two paramours who had already preceded her to the gallows. Signature trick: freebasing ale in a spoon, our subject would burn it down to a sticky syrup, which she could apply to her hands for a useful spidey-grip.

At age 14, she ditched her impoverished St. Giles family to cohabit with a thief 10 years her senior by the scabrous handle of “Jemmy the Mouth”, who was hanged for burglary in 1702. Nothing daunted, Anne moved on to one “Norwich Will”, who also had a good decade on her; this one swung in 1705 for a lucrative highway robbery.

Perhaps from their examples of excess greed, Anne seems to have picked up another useful trick: thieving modestly. Hangings required stealing goods in excess of a certain value, and while the threshold was heartbreaking low, it did exist. (Juries loath to hang a certain defendant for a mere property crime would often intentionally construe the value of stolen objects to only a sub-capital level.)

Anne Harris had been caught before for purloinings of a sub-felonious nature, and frequently: she was “so often burned in the face that there was no more room left for the hangman to stigmatise her.” In just her few years in the trade, almost every inch of her face had been burnt and scarred.

Accordingly, although her fatal crime likewise appears to have been only a minor theft, “the Court thought fit to condemn her for privately stealing a piece of printed calico” on the grounds of incorrigibility.

Update: via Althea Preston and Two Nerdy History Girls, clarification on the apparent context for Anne’s former sentences of facial burning.

From 1699 until 1707/8, England used a facial-burning sentence for minor thefts when the offender could claim benefit of clergy. After 1691, this benefit was fully available to women, and from 1706 it was even available for both men and women without the classical literacy test.

Since the point of the benefit by this time — long past the sell-by date of its ecclesiastical foundation — was to go easy on first-time offenders, it’s a bit surprising that Anne Harris might have had it several times. More than likely that again underscores the trifling value of her previous thefts. After the change in law early in 1708, it would be the hand that got branded instead … but as a repeat recidivist, Anne apparently was past the help of this little loophole regardless of the body part mutilated.

Incidentally, the reason England so quickly gave up on its experiment in branding small-time criminals with a prominent, visible-to-everyone stigmata was that “it hath been found by experience, that the said punishment hath not had its desired effect, by deterring such offenders from the further committing such crimes and offences, but on the contrary, such offenders being rendered thereby unfit to be intrusted in any service or employment to get their livelihood in any honest and lawful way, become the most desperate.”

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2010: William Garner, arsonist

Add comment July 13th, 2011 Meaghan

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

On this day in 2010, at 10:38 a.m., at the Southern Ohio Correctional Facility in Lucasville, convicted arsonist and quintuple murderer William L. Garner got the needle for the crimes he had committed eighteen years earlier.

Garner had burglarized the Cincinnati, Ohio apartment of Addie F. Mack on January 26, 1992, after he stole her purse and keys while she was being treated in a hospital emergency room.

After taking some electronics, Garner set three fires within the residence, although he knew there were children asleep inside it. Markeca Mason and Richard Gaines, both 11, Denitra Satterwhite, 12, Deondra Freeman, 10, and Mykkila Mason, 8, all died of smoke inhalation. Addie Mack’s oldest child, 13-year-old Rodriczus Mack, escaped through a window; he was the only survivor.

Rodriczus, Denitra, Deondra and Mykkila were siblings, and Markeca was their cousin. Richard was a friend of Rodriczus who happened to be spending the night.

Thanks to a tip from an observant taxi driver, Garner was arrested the next day and quickly confessed. He considered the children’s deaths to be “accidental” because he only set the fires to obliterate his fingerprints and he believed the children would smell the smoke and be able to get out in time.

Unfortunately, the apartment’s smoke detector was inoperable.

Garner was nineteen years old at the time of the murders. He had a criminal record dating back to age eleven, and following his January 1992 arrest he racked up thirteen behavior infractions in prison … including a fire-setting incident.

A psychologist who interviewed him said he functioned at the level of a 14-year-old, and his IQ tested at 76, barely above the juridical cutoff mark for mental retardation. When asking for clemency, Garner’s attorneys cited these factors as well as his “extremely violent and dysfunctional” upbringing, and also argued that he was brain-damaged due to lead poisoning.

In June 2010, the parole board voted unanimously to reject Garner’s clemency request, stating in its report, (pdf)

Considerable weight was afforded the considerable mitigation presented. It is clear that Mr. Garner suffered developmentally and was raised in an exceptionally and horrendously abusive environment. However, we cannot conclude that the mitigating factors are significant enough to outweigh the aggravating circumstances of an offense resulting in the death of five innocent children.

Garner was executed a month later, using Ohio’s recently-adopted “one-drug” lethal injection protocol (most states use, as Ohio had previously, a cocktail of three). It didn’t go smoothly.

A Toledo Blade article provides a detailed account of his last moments. The prison had to open a second viewing room to fit all the people who came to watch him die.

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1989: Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia

2 comments July 13th, 2010 Headsman

In the predawn hours this date in 1989, Cuban Gen. Arnaldo Ochoa was shot in a pasture at a West Havana military base along with Col. Antonio “Tony” de la Guardia and Captains Antonio Padrón and Jorge Martinez — all convicted of treason against the Cuban Revolution because of drug trafficking.

Before his abrupt fall just weeks before this date, Arnaldo Ochoa was one of the shining stars of Castro’s Cuba.

One of the Sierra Maestre guerrillas, Ochoa had fought with Che Guevara in the Battle of Santa Clara that toppled the Batista regime.

In the decades that followed, he rose to become one of the most powerful officers in Cuba, serving in Venezuela, Angola, Ethiopia.

But in early June 1989, and shortly after a Mikhail Gorbachev state visit to Cuba delivered the bad news that the crumbling Soviet Union would be withdrawing its subsidies to Havana, Ochoa and State Security officer Tony de la Guardia* were suddenly busted for running a drug-smuggling operation — essentially conspiring with the Colombian Medellion cartel to exploit Cuba’s position on the most direct routes to Florida, and corruptly skimming the proceeds in the process.

There seems to be little doubt among those in the know that they were doing exactly that, but endless speculation about what else they were up to — what the executions were really about.

There is the year, to begin with, which is why we’ve mentioned Gorbachev; Castro was hostile to the Soviet leader’s glasnost reforms, and could read well enough the dangerous direction of change in eastern Europe. He wanted Gorbachev to put the brakes on.

Ochoa was seen as a charismatic figure of a more liberal outlook and close to Russian officers to boot, and one school of thought has it that he therefore looked like the sort of man who might be able to mount a coup or serve as the KGB’s catspaw if it came to regime change.

Whether or not Ochoa was targeted on that basis, Castro surely did not regret during those dangerous transitional years as Russian patronage slipped away the salutary effect this day’s doings would have had on any other potential aspirants for his job.

That consideration, whether it was primary or tertiary, probably helps explain the purge’s old-school show trial vibe. On television, Ochoa confessed to it all, and assured the court,

If I receive this sentence, which might be execution … my last thought will be of Fidel, for the great revolution he has given our people.

(Although what that thought would have been is a different matter. After falling out with Ochoa over military operations in Angola, the Cuban dictator had bugged his general’s environs and thereby eavesdropped on numerous of caustic remarks about himself.)

The drug charges, too, point the way towards plausible hidden agendas.

Fidel and Raul generally took a cautious approach to the drug business — hardly virginal, but reputedly avoiding particularly egregious entanglements lest they gift-wrap the hostile Yankees a pretext for invading. (Given what happened to Panama later in this eventful year, that would have been a reasonable concern.)

At the same time, it’s all but inconceivable that they were taken completely unawares by “revelations” that their aides were up to something shady.

So the hypotheses in this area run the gamut from: Ochoa and de la Guardia taking an authorized but circumscribed covert operation and avariciously expanding it beyond any possible license; to, everyone at the top being up to his eyeballs and Ochoa and de la Guardia eliminated when it became expedient to bury their firsthand knowledge of Fidel’s firsthand knowledge. Timing, again, is suggestive; with the coming withdrawal of Soviet protection, this might have been seen in Havana a prudent moment to trim sails on narcotics transshipment.

Whatever Arnaldo Ochoa and Tony de la Guardia may have known or sensed about the wheels-within-wheels of Havana politics, they took it to their grave 21 years ago today. Perennial declarations of the Castros’ imminent fall have made the rounds ever since, but until that old stopped clock manages to tell the right time, it’s likely that the rest of us will have to content ourselves with guesswork.

* De la Guardia was a friend of the writer Gabriel Garcia Marquez. In this very year, Marquez dedicated The General in his Labyrinth to the soon-to-be-disgraced colonel.

Speaking of de la Guardia literary connections: Tony’s daughter, Ileana, has also published a book.

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1826: The Decembrists

7 comments July 25th, 2009 Headsman

On this date* in 1826, five leaders of the Decembrist revolt were hanged at St. Petersburg’s Peter and Paul fortress for their abortive eponymous uprising eight months before.

The most renowned and romantic of Russia’s hapless liberals, the Decembrists were a secret clique of idealistic young officers, many of whom had cut their teeth chasing Napoleon’s grande armee out of Russia in 1812.

In Russia’s complex interaction with the West — its ideas, its political institutions, its ways of life — these were the westernizers, who saw constitutionalism as the way of the future.

Upon the mysteriously sudden death of Tsar Alexander I, an irregular succession to the second-oldest surviving brother, Nicholas I, gave our day’s doomed and gallant youth cause to occupy St. Petersburg’s Senatskaya Square to uphold the rights of the first brother — and more to the point, to uphold the constitution to the extent of constraining the monarchy.


Decembrists at Senate Square, as depicted by Karl Kolman.

Uh … Now What?

This badly organized affair failed in its aim to attract the mass of soldiery and, constitutionalists as its organizers were, did not even aim at mobilizing the general populace.

After the initial heady rush of marching into the square in the name of liberty, the Decembrists were left in a standoff against a much larger force of loyalists. When the latter started shooting, that was that.

Those that survived faced trial, with five — Peter Kakhovsky, Kondraty Ryleyev, Sergei Muravyov-Apostol, Mikhail Bestuzhev-Ryumin and Pavel Pestel — initially sentenced to drawing and quartering.

“Mere” hanging was deemed sufficient for the purpose. That would be about the maximum embrace of liberalism by the Russian autocracy, whose lesson from the uprising was to crack down against any hint of forward-thinking politics — ultimately an unsuccessful strategy for the Romanov dynasty.

St. Petersburg’s Senate Square — renamed Decembrist Square by the Soviet government — where the action happened. The iconic equestrian statue of Peter the Great, commissioned by Catherine the Great and unveiled in 1782, witnessed it all; the statue acquired its enduring moniker, “The Bronze Horseman”, from a poem of the same title penned in 1833 by Alexander Pushkin, a friend of several Decembrists.

One of the greatest works of Russian literature, Pushkin’s “Bronze Horseman” weaves an ambiguous Decembrist-tinged critique of cruel imperial power and overreach into a complex narrative of St. Petersburg whose upshot is still up for lively literary debate. “The Bronze Horseman’s crag rose up before the poet on an empty square,” wrote one historian, “washed with the blood of those who rebelled on December 14, 1825″

Appalling there
He sat, begirt with mist and air.
What thoughts engrave His brow! what hidden
Power and authority He claims!
What fire in yonder charger flames!
Proud charger, whither art thou ridden,
Where leapest thou? and where, on whom,
Wilt plant thy hoof?

“They don’t even know how to hang you …”

When the hangings were carried out, Kakhovsky, Muravyov-Apostol and Ryleyev all had their ropes break; while some in the crowd anticipated the old prerogative of mercy for any prisoner who survives an execution, they just got re-hung instead. “Unhappy country,” quipped Ryleyev as the fresh nooses were fixed up, “where they don’t even know how to hang you.”**

Other Decembrists not condemned to the unreliable craftmanship of the Russian gallows were shipped to Siberia, where they invigorated the cultural life of the Lake Baikal city of Irkutsk — many of them famously followed by their “Decembrists’ wives,” an iconic type that continues to denote heroically sacrificial loyalty since the women had to renounce their own right to return to European Russia.

These, at least, had a place to call their own, however distant. But the class of Russian elites to which they belonged would be thrust into a trackless wilderness by their failure (in the Decembrist rising and otherwise) to carve out some distinct place for themselves. Russia’s long reckoning with modernity still had many years to run.


A worn postcard of a 19th century Russian painting depicting (perhaps) a political prisoner in the Peter and Paul Fortress.

* July 25 was the date on the Gregorian calendar; per the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at the time, the date was July 13.

** Ryleyev was quite the saucy one, having fought a “mysterious” duel with Pushkin in 1823, and instigated (and served as second at) a famous St. Petersburg jilted-love duel in 1825 that cost the lives of both antagonists.

A poet himself and a romantic to the point of fanaticism, Ryleyev wrote odes extolling executed national heroes like Artemy Volynsky and Severyn Nalyvaiko, seemingly alluding (as in this excerpt from the latter work) to his anticipation of joining them.

I know full well the dire fate
Which must upon the patriot wait
Who first dare rise against the foe
And at the tyrant aim the blow.
This is my destined fate

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1971: Ten failed putschists in Morocco

1 comment July 13th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1971, four generals, five colonels and a major who had attempted a coup d’etat in Morocco less than three days before were shot without trial at the military barracks in Rabat.

The senior officers* had taken military cadets and stormed the palace where birthday celebrations for King Hassan II were taking place. They captured the monarch himself before the cadets themselves wavered, and loyal troops successfully counterattacked. Ninety-two people, including the Belgian ambassador, were killed in the affair; the king was at their state funeral on this date at the time the putschists were being shot.

This selection of the coup’s leadership gunned down this day in Rabat did not make an end to the reverberations; other trials followed later in the year, and some others who were implicated were simply “disappeared”.

Although we lack the testimony of any of the coup leaders themselves for their motivations, it occurred in the context of political and social upheaval in post-colonial Morocco. Frank H. Braun (“Morocco: Anatomy of a Palace Revolution That Failed”, International Journal of Middle East Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1 (Jan., 1978)) argues that it was rooted in an eclipse of the traditional prerogatives of the military — and especially of the Berber nobility, who can be said to be the authors of the attempt.

So too can its failure be ascribed to the scant support this parochial and backward-looking cause commanded; non-Berber officers didn’t join the plot. Even so, with one of his government’s traditional pillars of support so heavily compromised (and decimated by this day’s executions and other reprisals), the coup led Hassan II to somewhat liberalize Morocco’s constitution the following year.

Which did not exactly still the tumultuous power politics scene in Rabat.

Mohamed Oufkir, the general who had coolly suppressed the 1971 coup** to become the preeminent military officer in the country, mounted his own bid for power in 1972 and suffered the same fate as this date’s doomed rebels.

* Notably, Mohamed Medbouh (French link), “one of my closest collaborators” in the estimation of the king himself (but also of “the mentality of a jackal”). His surname actually meant “cutthroat,” and was earned by his father’s literally having his throat cut — and surviving — in the 1920′s.

** A Berber himself, Oufkir may have been aware of the earlier coup — and cunning enough not to commit himself until he saw which way the wind was blowing.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Morocco,No Formal Charge,Power,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Treason

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1882: Thomas Egan: 3 tries, 2 ropes, 1 innocent man

3 comments July 13th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1882, Thomas Egan was hanged in Sioux Falls in the Dakota Territories (present-day South Dakota) for strangling his wife, Mary.

It took three tries to get the hanging right … and it still turned out they got it wrong: years later, Egan’s stepdaughter copped to the crime on her deathbed.

Egan was the first man hanged (.doc) by state officers in the Dakota Territory; earlier, Jack McCall had been executed there by the feds.

Let’s start with the twice-botched hanging, whose can’t-look-away horror can hardly be improved from its original coverage by The Chicago Tribune (picked up elsewhere as well — such as The Alexandria Post of Douglas County, Minnesota):

A HORRIBLE AFFAIR.

The Execution of Thomas Egan, the Wife Murderer, at Sioux Falls, Dak — The Drop Fails Three Times Before the Culprit is Deprived of Life, Owing to Rotten Ropes.

On Thursday, July 13, occurred at Sioux Falls the first judicial hanging ever done in the territory of Dakota. Nearly two years ago Thomas Egan, who suffered the death penalty, most foully and cruelly murdered his wife, with whom he had lived for nearly a quarter of a century. From evidence produced at the trial it would appear that they had frequent quarrels which at length culminated on this fatal morning in her death. He deliberately sent the children away, and while she was washing dishes at the table came behind her, and after throwing a rope around her neck and strangling her, pounded the life out of her with a club. The body was then thrown through a trap door into the cellar, where it was found three days after, horribly mutilated. The skull was fractured and the head was covered with frightful gashes made by the club. It appeared also as if she were not dead when thrown down, as she was discovered partly reclining against the call [sic] of the cellar, which added to the horribleness of the crime. Eagen [sic] was arrested and tried, and although there was every effort made by his attorneys to save him; he was convicted and sentenced to be hanged at Sioux Falls by Judge Kidder of the Fourth judicial district of the territory.

On Thursday, 13th, after eating a hearty breakfast, hearing the sentence read, and some religious exercises by a Catholic priest, Eagan [sic] was taken to the gallows. All eyes were intently fixed on the prisoner. His face was somewhat pale, but his lips were firm and he seemed to exhibit no sign of fear. He was a straight, heavy-set man, weighing 180 lbs., with a retreating forehead, heavy projecting eyebrows and an ugly looking eye. His general appearance was far from prepossessing. He was dressed in a plain black suit, with clean white shirt, collar and tie, and low shoes. He walked straight up to the platform to the scaffold, taking his place on the fatal trap, turned around and faced the crowd below. The sheriff now asked him if he had any thing to day [sic], but his lips still were kept sealed to his secret, and he shook his head and answered in a low voice, “No.” His legs were now tied, he himself assisting the officer by placing his feet close together. The black cap was put on his head, but not a limb quivered. The noose was adjusted and the fatal moment had come. While the priests were chanting their solemn service, and while the attending officers and crowd were holding their breath in silence, the sheriff touched the trigger which alone kept Thomas Egan from his death. There was a crash as the door flew back against the boards and body, deprived of its footing, shot through the door, and now, horror or horrors!

The rope snaps like a piece of thread, the body drops to the earth with a dull thud, partly on its back, and rebounding rolls over on its face. The crowd are paralyzed with astonishment and fear. An unearthly gurgling sound now breaks forth from the prisoner. His neck is not broken, but the cord is wound tightly about it and he is strangling. A half a dozen men now rush forward, one seizes him by the arm, another by the leg, another by the waist, another by the head. It is seventy-five feet from the ground, where he has fallen, back to the jail-door, and around to the platform of the scaffold he is hurriedly conveyed through the crowd, the broken rope in the meanwhile dangling from his neck, while his horrible groaning strikes terror to the bystanders. Once more on the scaffold, another rope is adjusted and the sickening details once more gone through with, the trap falls again and the half dead man drops once more; but worse. The rope was not fully adjusted before the excited sheriff again touched the trigger and down the body goes a second time but not with sufficient force to accomplish the desired result.

His neck is still unbroken, and the slow process of suffocation is all this time going on. The attendants seize him by the arms and again pull him on the scaffold while the death struggle continues. The first rope is flopping from his neck and he still has life enough, so one says who was on the scaffold, to brace his feet for the third and last fall. If at this juncture some one had mercifully stepped up and put a bullet through his head, it would have been an act which would have certainly been appreciated by the crowd. The rope is finally fixed, the door drops once again, the man shoots down, and there is a snap which is heard all around the yard and outside. There is a shrugging of the shoulders, a twitching of the legs a convulsive shudder and all is still. The body swings slowly around. There is no motion of leg or arm or muscle, and in eight and one half minutes the doctors pronounced him dead, and shortly after the body was taken down. Yes, he is dead at last, and the sightseers heave a genuine sigh of relief. The corpse is now cut down and the pinioned arms and legs released. The dirt was brushed from the clothing and body laid in a coffin, where it was afterwards viewed by the crowd, both outside and inside the jail. The effects of the strangulation were fearfully evidence about the neck. The first cord had embedded itself, but the action of the heart had forced the blood under it and the flesh was swollen, purpled and discolored. There was a sightless stare to the eyes and blood was flowing out of the corners of his mouth. After all those desiring had seen the corpse it was boxed up, and early in the afternoon it was taken to the Catholic burying-ground where it was buried, and with it the club and cord with which he killed his wife.

Nobody in a position to help Egan knew he hadn’t “most foully and cruelly murdered his wife” or that “the horribleness of the crime” stained some other’s soul, of course … but one wonders how the writer thinks he did know it. The obscure considerations of jurymen might well be the most virtuous structural safeguard of the Republic, but as a dependable compass of fact, one might as well scry the entrails of a sacred ox.

It has always seemed misfortunate to the Headsman that journalists prone to the most tedious wheedling over the use of the qualifier “allegedly” to uphold the principle of innocent before proven guilty consider the epistemological certitude of a juridical conviction sufficient to abandon full stop the (admittedly inelegant) qualifier and speak of Revealed Truth. The New York Times would hardly think to make apology for flatly calling Egan — who did keep his peace about the verdict — “the wife murderer”:


… any more than the San Antonio Express-News would regret the assertive headline “Father who killed 3 is executed” mounted atop an article reporting the executed man’s continued insistence upon his innocence. Any good scribe frets more readily about column-inches and legal ass-covering than bickering and arguing over who killed who. But shame if not stylistics merits less awe before the particular sausage-making of the judiciary when such modern cases too turn out to have been cock-ups from start to finish.

In 1993, South Dakota Governor Walter Miller apologized (.pdf) for Egan’s execution. A descendant of Egan’s has written a book about the case, Drop Him Till He Dies: The Twisted Tragedy of Immigrant Homesteader Thomas Egan.

Part of the Themed Set: Embarrassed Executioners.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Posthumous Exonerations,Public Executions,South Dakota,USA,Wrongful Executions

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