1958: Nuri al-Said

Add comment July 15th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1958, Nuri al-Said, the Prime Minister of Iraq’s deposed Hashemite monarchy, was captured trying to flee Iraq in disguise, and immediately slaughtered

A onetime Ottoman officer turned veteran of the Arab Revolt under the eventual King Faisal I, Nuri al-Said (or as-Said) was a preeminent politician for much of the Kingdom of Iraq era and practically the personification of Baghdad’s pro-British posture.

A figure of wide popular loathing — crowds chanted for his death at the funeral of King Ghazi in 1939, attributing the young ruler’s untimely death to Nuri’s hand — he had managed to escape the 14 July Revolution‘s initial hours and had one last night on the lam to contemplate the terrible fate of the royal family that he served.

He was not destined to avoid it.

Captured in disguise the next day and put to summary death, after which the mob vented its fury upon him.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Famous,Gibbeted,Heads of State,History,Iraq,Lynching,No Formal Charge,Politicians,Power,Shot,Summary Executions

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1857: Danforth Hartson, again

Add comment July 15th, 2018 Robert Elder

(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)

“For God’s sake, don’t do that again.”

Danforth Hartson, convicted of murder, hanging, California.
Executed July 15, 1857

Hartson (aka Sailor Jim) claimed self-defense in a fight that followed his argument with “estimable citizen” John Burke, whom he knocked to the ground and then shot in the chest. Burke was able to make a full statement, naming Hartson as the murderer, before he died.

Hartson’s last words came after he slipped through the noose and fell through the trap door.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Botched Executions,California,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,Murder,Other Voices,USA

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1738: Baruch Leibov and Alexander Voznitsyn, Jew and convert

Add comment July 15th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1738, the Jewish proselytizer Baruch Leibov was publicly burned in St. Petersburg along with a convert, retired Russian naval officer Alexander Voznitsyn.

The nobleman Voznitsyn met the Smolensk merchant Leibov in Moscow and the two became friends and spiritual interlocutors. In 1737, Voznitsyn’s wife denounced him for Judaizing as she began to notice that he’d stopped wearing a cross, would pray facing the wall instead of Orthodox icons, and avoided eating certain foods. It emerged too that his Christian confessor had not heard from him in a very long time, and that he had ordered peasants on his estate to destroy some icons.

Both men denied the charges at first, but Voznitsyn’s genitalia confessed his apostasy and after an application of torture, so did Voznitsyn’s mouth.

The subsequent punishment was remarkably harsh even in contemporaries’ eyes — via the curious insistence of the Empress Anna upon severity.

A rarely-used edict from the pre-Petrine 17th century was invoked against Voznitsyn for blaspheming; in the case of Leibov, it was necessary in order to fit him into the statute to construe his having “seduced” Voznitsyn into the Abrahamic faith during the two men’s religious bull sessions. Since Voznitsyn was a seasoned and educated man with a known predilection for spiritual seeking, this finding negated the entire qualifier; if Voznitsyn was “lured” or “deceived” into Judaizing then it was officially impossible for anyone to Judaize absent deception.

But in practice, it was likely the convert’s exceptional qualities that attracted such a demonstrative punishment — “so that such ungodly deeds are discontinued, and such a blasphemer as Voznitsyn and converter to Judaism as Boruch do not dare to deceive others: for the sake of such blasphemous guilt … both to be executed and burned.”

They died together before a vast concourse of gawkers near St. Petersburg’s Admiralty building.

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1381: John Ball, radical priest

1 comment July 15th, 2016 Headsman

Radical priest John Ball was hanged, drawn, and quartered on this St. Swithin’s Day in 1381 for the edification of the 14-year-old king whom he had very nearly deposed.

The wandering “hedge priest” Ball emerged out of St. Albans in the heart of the calamitous fourteenth centry spitting class leveling to rapt audiences of aggrieved peasants. He paid the price with at least three stints in prison. In 1366, an edict forbade his would-be flock from hearing his seditious theology demanding clerical poverty and (so complained the Archbishop of Canterbury) “putting about scandals concerning our own person, and those of other prelates and clergy.”*

But there was a reason that Ball’s illicit sermons could command such attention, and ordering him to shut up was mere whistling past the graveyard.

Ravaged by war and plague and heavy-handed wage suppression, England’s seething 99% broke into rebellion in June 1381.

Wat Tyler’s rebellion was one of the most spectacular risings England ever saw, and one of the first acts of peasants marching on London was to liberate Ball from ecclesiastical custody in Maidstone.

Ball preached to his rescuers at Blackheath, coining his great egalitarian slogan-couplet, “When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman?”

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

They came breathtakingly close to accomplishing it.

For a few days that pregnant June the rebels controlled London, even putting to death the Archbishop of Canterbury and mounting his head on London Bridge — and Ball the “mad priest” stood in leadership alongside Wat Tyler and Jack Straw. Peasant rebellions are usually destined to end horribly; maybe this was one always was too, but it achieved very much more — terrifyingly much, to England’s ruling class — than previous other disturbances by the pitchfork crowd. By appearances, Wat Tyler and John Ball and the rest were within an ace of overturning England’s feudal hierarchy. Certainly they had the opportunity to slay young king Richard II, whose courage in command at this moment might have saved the crown to be taken from his descendants. During face-to-face negotiations between Richard and Wat Tyler himself, the rude peasant was murdered — and Richard acted smartly to bluff his villeins into marching away at a moment when they could easily have turned regicidal.

The beheaded movement was soon dislodged from London, and while promises of mercy (not always observed) did for the mass of rebels, those in its leadership could never hope for the same — least of all a career rabble-rouser. Ball was hunted down in hiding, and this time would be indulged no ecclesiastical detention: instead, his head replaced the Archbishop of Canterbury’s on London Bridge.

Wat Tyler’s name attaches to the rebellion, but for posterity it is the words of Ball, few as have survived for us, that describe its aims in something like its own voice.

Those words still make for a powerfully current critique in our own oligarchical age. When in 2015 a marker was unveiled commemorating the peasants’ rebellion, it was done on this anniversary of John Ball’s execution — and with a summons to equality he issued that has never yet been answered.

Things cannot go on well in England nor ever will until everything shall be in common. When there shall be neither Vassal nor Lord and all distinctions levelled.

* Ball’s radicalism also helped turn English elites against the religious reforms sought by John Wycliffe, who was still alive during the 1381 peasants’ rebellion.

** In the early 20th century, socialist priest Conrad Noel had a marker with the same words hung at Thaxted Parish Church, where it can still be seen today.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Drawn and Quartered,England,Execution,Famous,Gruesome Methods,History,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Treason

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1936: Charlotte Bryant

9 comments July 15th, 2015 Meaghan

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

At around 8:00 a.m. on this day in 1936, Charlotte Bryant was hanged at Teeter Prison by Thomas Pierrepoint for poisoning her husband with arsenic the previous year.

“Dying of arsenical poisoning,” writes Stephen Wade in his book Notorious Murders of the Twentieth Century: Famous and Forgotten British Cases,

…has got to be one of the most agonizing exits from the world we can imagine… Its effects are horrific… The sensations experienced have been described as the sense of having a burning ball of hot metal in the gut; on top of that, the victim has vicious diarrhea, vomiting and spasms in the joints, dizziness and consequent depression.

Frederick Bryant was to die that way.

Charlotte was born and raised in Ireland. She and Frederick met there in 1922, where he was serving with the military police. Charlotte, who was only about nineteen at the time, had the reputation as a girl who would sleep with anyone. Frederick didn’t seem to mind her reputation, though, and they so they married and moved to a tiny, rural village in Dorset, and he sought work as a farm laborer.

Charlotte’s open promiscuity continued, and soon evolved into prostitution. Everyone in the neighborhood knew her for her gallantries. It was said that, when someone asked Frederick how he felt about this, he pointed out he was earning less than said £2 a week as a cowman and said, “Four pounds a week is better than thirty bob [shillings]. I don’t care a damn what she does.”

Charlotte ultimately bore five children, some of whom may have been Frederick’s.

This situation continued until 1933, when Charlotte met Leonard Edward Parsons, a man who was himself married, and fell in love. Not only did the easygoing Frederick accept this relationship, he actually invited Parsons to live with them. Parsons did, and things actually went quite well for some time. Parsons paid the Bryants room and board, which made Frederick happy. Parsons and Charlotte got to have sex all the time, which made them happy. Win-win.

But finally Frederick asked Parsons to move out.

Frederick Bryant became inexplicably ill in May 1935 after drinking tea Charlotte had prepared for him. He recovered within a few days and he and his doctor shrugged and passed it off as gastroenteritis. In August he got sick again with the same symptoms as before, and as before, he soon recovered.

In November, Leonard Parsons told Charlotte he was going to leave her and find another job somewhere else. She was devastated.

By the time the Christmas season rolled around, Frederick was sick again. This time his symptoms were serious and he writhed in agony, “saying there was something inside him like a red-hot poker that was driving him mad.” He was sent to Sherbourne Hospital for treatment, but died a few days before Christmas.

Frederick’s doctor, who had treated him through these mysterious bouts of gastric illness, was suspicious: the symptoms the dead man had complained of corresponded exactly to arsenic poisoning, and like everyone else in the area he knew Charlotte as something less than the good wife. The doctor refused to sign a death certificate and notified the police of his suspicions.

A very thorough investigation began. A chemistry expert from Scotland Yard was given

complete organs, including the stomach and contents, small and large intestines, urine in the bladder, vomit and excreta, complete lungs, portions of skin and hair, brain and nails. In addition, these were taken from the area around the body: samples of soil from above the coffin, below the coffin and from the adjacent ground, sawdust from the coffin, and a portion of the shroud.

Sure enough: the results showed that Frederick’s flesh and the environs of his corpse were positively dripping with arsensic. Altogether 4.09 grains were discovered. Anywhere between 2 and 4 grains comprises a fatal dose.

While the chemist was at work analyzing his myriad of evidence, the police were questioning Charlotte. She denied having harmed her husband and said she had not recently purchased arsenic or anything containing it. However, a friend of the couple had some interesting things to say: Charlotte had a tin of arsenic-laced Eureka brand weed killer and said “I must get rid of this … If nothing is found, they can’t put a rope round your neck!”

After a search, the police found a partially burned tin of Eureka weed killer. Dirt and ash samples from the rubbish heap where it had been discarded tested positive for elevated levels of arsenic.

But they still had to prove Charlotte bought that tin of weed killer.

The Scotland Yard analyst had a look at Charlotte’s coat and found arsenic dust in the right-hand pocket at a staggering 58,000 parts per million. (By comparison, the average amount of arsenic found in ordinary soil is about 18 parts per million.)

Records showed that someone had purchased Eureka weed killer from a local chemist’s shop at around the right date, signing their name on the poison register with only an X. Charlotte was illiterate and could not have signed her name, but would have used her mark instead. The chemist said he knew the woman who came in to buy the poison but claimed that in spite of this, he would be unable to identify her now. He was probably trying cover his own tracks: it was illegal for a chemist to sell arsenic to anyone they didn’t know.

Parsons was questioned about Frederick’s murder. He had an alibi and was cleared of suspicion, but the police decided they’d accumulated enough against Charlotte, and arrested her for murder.

At her trial in May 1936, her attorney stressed the circumstantial nature of the evidence and warned the jury not to take Charlotte’s promiscuity into account. After all, she was on trial for murder, not for sleeping around. No one had seen Charlotte poison any food or give poisoned food to her husband, and the chemist still couldn’t or wouldn’t identify her as the woman who bought the weed killer at his shop.

Nonetheless, the verdict was guilty. Desperate efforts were made on her behalf to get her a new trial; some people believed the chemistry expert’s evidence had been faulty. These efforts came to nothing. Charlotte wrote a letter to the King, begging for a royal pardon, but this was ignored. She died protesting her innocence.

A footnote to this sad and sordid story: Charlotte left a pitiful estate worth 5 shillings, 8½ pence and willed it all to her five children. (She’d learned to write her name in jail; her will was the first legal document she signed with her name rather than her mark.) Her children were trucked off to an orphanage. Mrs. Violet van der Elst, a noted anti-death penalty activist, heard of their plight and vowed to make sure they were cared for. (Van der Elst featured this case among numerous others in her 1937 tract On the Gallows.)

She also started a charitable fund for the children of executed convicts. The first donation to the fund, from van der Elst herself, was £50,000. As for the Bryant children, nothing further is known of them.

On this day..

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756: Yang Guifei, favored concubine

Add comment July 15th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 756, the imperial consort Yang Guifei was expediently executed during the An Lushan Rebellion.

The Tang dynasty Emperor Xuanzong, whose beloved concubine Yang was, undertook this cruel extremity only in great duress. Initially married to one of the emperor’s sons, Yang so enamored the emperor that he usurped the prince’s place and got the kid a different wife. In the c. 800 classic poem “Song of Everlasting Sorrow” the poet Bai Juyi mused on the smitten sovereign rushing headlong into waiting tragedy.

The emperor neglected the world from that moment,
Lavished his time on her in endless enjoyment.
She was his springtime mistress, and his midnight tyrant.
Though there were three thousand ladies all of great beauty,a
All his gifts were devoted to one person.

Indeed, over the 740s Yang’s relations rose at court on the strength of her hold over the emperor, causing no few resentments among courtiers now obliged to flatter them. She’s been cast as a femme fatale, a siren whose chords called the emperor to capsize his own ship of state.

The general An Lushan was the rock of his ruin. Though An Lushan’s revolt would one day claim Yang’s life, he was a great favorite of hers and eventually adopted as Yang’s son; it was whispered that the imperial gifts showered on this commander might reflect favor with the concubine quite surpassing the bounds of propriety.

The most important favor was command of all northern China’s garrisons, with 150,000-plus troops.

His influence (and the fact that he was not ethnically Han, but of Turkic and Iranic extraction) made him rivals at the imperial court, even including the concubine Yang’s cousin, chancellor Yang Guozhong.

One can speculate as to who suspected whom first, but as we’ve seen with the Roman Empire a sufficiently strong inducement to treachery inevitably becomes tantamount to the real thing: eventually one’s intemperate supporters or implacable enemies will cast the die for even the most retiring general. An Lushan was Caesar enough to cross the Tang’s Rubicon, which for him was the Yellow River, above which his armies had been confined.

In the winter of 755-756, An crossed this river and marched towards Chang’an (Xi’an, then the imperial capital and the world’s most populous city), styling himself the Emperor of Yan. This aspirant state proved far from durable, and vanished by 763 — but by the time that long term had come into view, all of our principal characters were dead.

Yang Guifei was the first of them. (Plenty of secondary characters — generals, eunuchs, rivals and family of rivals — were being put to death all along and well before Yang, of course.) As the rebel army advanced on the capital, Xuanzong and his court fled in panic, Yang included. One day’s march further inland towards Chengdu, the royal guards themselves rebelled. Embittered like many others by the sway Yang and her family held — and blaming the consort for the ignominious retreat they were embarked upon — the soldiers refused to proceed without Yang’s execution. Xuanzong had little choice under the circumstances but to assent to her summary strangulation.

The Son of Heaven made good his escape, and his kingdom prevailed in the fight. (An was assassinated in 757.) Xuanzong himself, however, had to abdicate in favor of his son before the chaotic summer was out, and lived out his last five years as Taishang Huang, “Retired Emperor”.

One can only guess at the regrets he had in those days for the beloved mistress sacrificed to the safety of his person and throne. It’s a circumstance that has become a staple of Chinese literature over the centuries since, from the aforeentioned Bai Juyi right down to the present day, in every medium imaginable.

In Bai’s “Song of Everlasting Sorrow”, the bereft former emperor at last sends a Taoist priest to the heavens in search of his lost love, whose spirit has not even appeared to him in a dream. Yang Guifei sends the messenger back with a last pledge of sundered love:

“Our spirits belong together, like these precious fragments,
Sometime, in earth or heaven, we shall meet again.”
And she sent these words, by the Taoist, to remind him
of their midnight vow, secret between them.
“On that Seventh night, of the Herdboy and the Weaver,
In the silent Palace we declared our dream was
To fly together in the sky, two birds on the same wing,
To grow together on the earth, two branches of one tree.”

Earth fades, Heaven fades, at the end of days.
But Everlasting Sorrow endures always.

Yang Guifei’s tomb remains a popular tourist destination to this date.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: Arts and Literature,China,Early Middle Ages,Execution,History,Myths,No Formal Charge,Political Expedience,Popular Culture,Power,Sex,Strangled,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Women

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1883: Leoncio Prado, for defending his homeland

1 comment July 15th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1883, Leoncio Prado Gutierrez (English Wikipedia entry | the very much more extensive Spanish) was shot by the Chileans during the War of the Pacific.

Prado’s father, Manuel Ignacio Prado, was twice the president of Peru (1865-1868,* 1876-1879).

As a military man (Prado’s first presidency was as outright dictator), the old man naturally had his son on a soldierly track as well. Leoncio was all of 12 years old when he took part in the Battle of Callao in 1866, defending that city against a Spanish bombardment during the Chincha Islands War.

That war saw Peru and Chile cooperating against Spain, after the latter seized a lucrative cluster of guano islands.

But different resource rivalries put the two former allies at loggerheads in 1879. When Peru nationalized saltpeter mining in the border province of Tarapaca — dispossessing Chilean interests — and Bolivia took similar measures, the countries fought the three-way War of the Pacific, also known as the Saltpeter War.

Chile would win the war decisively, dramatically reshaping Latin America in the process. Peru lost most of Tarapaca to Chile, devastating Peru’s saltpeter industry and provoking a generation of instability and social crisis. Bolivia fared even worse, losing its only littoral province to Chile: Bolivia remains landlocked to this day.

So it’s safe to say that there was something at stake worth fighting for as hostilities commenced.

By this time Leoncio Prado was 26, and a veteran of the intervening years’ Cuban war for independence from Spain.

As the Saltpeter War got underway, Prado returned from the United States where he was preparing an expedition to help Philippines separatists, and formed a guerrilla force. Though this corps had its highlight moments, it was overwhelmed in a scrap with Chilean regulars in July 1880 and Prado taken prisoner.

Considering his lineage and his exploits, he was an honored captive for the Chileans who repeatedly offered to release him on his honor not to take up arms again.

Prado refused these offers for some time, but he finally accepted his parole at the start of 1882 — a low ebb for Peruvian fortunes, for his father had been deposed by a coup and 1881-82 saw leadership of the country violently contested. Prado’s only thought, notwithstanding his pledge to Chile, was for the defense of his country and he rallied another party of guerrillas to his banner. “The enemy’s bullets do not kill,” he cried. “For to die for the fatherland is to live in immortal glory!”

That has proved to be the case for Prado, who certainly stood out from the politicians of his time for his patriotic heroism.

Captured during the decisive Chilean victory at the Battle of Huamachuco where a grenade shattered his thigh, the crippled Prado was regretfully executed in his bed for having broken his previous parole by resuming arms in the fight.

“We were all crying — all but Pradito,” recalled the Chilean captain tasked with overseeing the nasty business.

Six years after Prado’s execution, his aged father — the ex-president — sired yet another son, Manuel Prado Ugarteche. That son would also go on to hold the Peruvian presidency. While in office, he christened the Leoncio Prado Military Academy, an institution distinguished in literature as the setting for the Mario Vargas Llosa novel The Time of the Hero

* Prado pere was ousted from his first turn at the helm of state — a dictatorship — by Jose Balta, whose sad fate has adorned these macabre pages.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Chile,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,Notably Survived By,Peru,Shot,Soldiers,Wartime Executions

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1927: Three persistent escapees

1 comment July 15th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1927, Illinois conducted a public triple hanging, actually among the last public hangings in the state’s history.*

Charlie Duschowski, Walter Stalesky, Charles Shader, Roberto Torrez, Gregario Rizo and Barnardo Roa had busted out of the old Collins Street Prison in Joliet, along with a seventh man named James Price. In the process, they killed Assistant Warden, and former policeman, Peter Klein.

This has dirty Chicago politics from the Prohibition era all over it.

The events angered much of the general public, but among Chicago Mexicans, the fugitives became heroes. Will County officials investigated allegations that Klein belonged to a parole-selling ring headed by Will Colvin, chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The newspapers also reported that Chicago police had arrested Klein for selling bootleg liquor while still warden and for allowing prisoners to leave the prison and commit robberies so they could raise money for paroles. (Source)

At any rate, six of the men — all but James Price — were recaptured and condemned to die.

However, friends and relatives of the “doomed” Mexican trio began smuggling in saw blades with their care packages, and by March 1927, Rizo and Roa were hard at work sawing through their bars while the songbird Torrez covered them by belting out La Paloma for days on end.

Roa made a clean getaway, but Rizo and Torrez were taken after a few days in a south Chicago shootout. Now the proposed gallows club was down to five.

Nothing daunted, the three white folk in the party attempted their own breakout by picking their cell lock — joined by Rizo, who would find that the third time was not the charm. Taking sheriff Alfred E. Markgraf hostage, they attempted to drive out of the jail yard: Rizo was shot dead in the resulting fusillade, but somehow Charles Shader managed to scramble away in the mayhem as his compatriots were being re-arrested.

So now, with Shader, Roa, and Price on the lam and Rizo on the ice, only three guys remained to hang.

Left to right: Duschowski, Stalesky, and Torrez.

Notwithstanding the abysmal retention percentage, the prospect of a public triple hanging was a tremendous draw — no less so for the elusive desperadoes’ talent for grabbing headlines afresh every few weeks. A raucous crowd pressed around a sizable detail of riflemen who had good reason to suspect one last bid for freedom. (In a failure of showmanship, that did not happen.) The widow of the original victim even petitioned to throw the trap to drop them. (Ditto.)

So nothing remained but to visit justice upon them.

But not only upon them.

According to the July 17, 1927 Chicago Tribune, the curiosity of the spectacle made it an irresistible lure to yet another fugitive. What was it about Illinois jails in the Roaring Twenties?

Lincoln, Ill., July 16. — (AP) Albert “Blackie” Logan, escaped prisoner from the Logan county jail, is under arrest again here today, awaiting trial for safecracking. Logan ventured from concealment to see the three murderers of Deputy Warden Peter Klein hanged at Joliet. He was recognized by the sheriff.

As for the three escapees:

  • Shader was recaptured and hanged on October 10, 1928. It was the last hanging in the state’s history.
  • Price made it to New York, where he eventually wound up in prison for robbery. Illinois got him back in 1937, gave him a long prison term, and eventually paroled the guy in the 1960s.
  • Roa made it to Mexico, dodged a couple of near-miss extradition attempts, and was never returned to the tender mercies of Illinois. His fate after 1948 (the last time he was arrested, and an extradition fell through) is unknown.

* They were also the first executed in July of 1927, which was important because July 1 was the date Illinois adopted a switch to the electric chair. The change was not retroactive to crimes before that date, however, so it was the gallows for these fellows and several others into the following year.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Illinois,Murder,Public Executions,USA

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1907: Qiu Jin, Chinese feminist and revolutionary

4 comments July 15th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1907, Chinese poet, intellectual and activist Qiu Jin (Ch’iu Chin) was beheaded for plotting an anti-Qing rising.

The daughter of a well-to-do gentry family, Qiu was shunted into the arranged marriage that would have been usual for her milieu.

It did not suit her.

Hers had been an active mind from youth, and after several years of domestic misery, resolved to make her own way in the world, separated herself from her husband, and headed for Japan.

She prepared herself for this journey by an act taxing symbolism as heavily as physique: painfully un-binding her feet. “Unbinding my own feet to undo the poisoned years / Arousing the souls of a hundred flowers to passionate movement,” she wrote in verse while en route to Japan.*

She would later issue a plea for women to emancipate themselves by doing likewise.

[W]e women, who have had our feet bound from early childhood, have suffered untold pain and misery, for which our parents showed no pity. Under this treatment our faces grew pinched and thin, and our muscles and bones were cramped and distorted. The consequence is that our bodies are weak and incapable of vigorous activity, and in everything we do we are obliged to lean on others.

Being thus necessarily dependent on external aid, we find ourselves, after marriage, subjected to the domination of men, just as though we were their household slaves. All our energies are confined to the home, where we are occupied in cutting out clothes, cooking and preparing food, making tea and boiling rice, sprinkling and sweeping, waiting on our husbands, and handing them basin and towel.

In any important business we are prevented from taking the least part. Should a guest arrive, we are obliged to make ourselves scarce and hide in our private apartments. We are not allowed to inquire deeply into any subject, and should we venture to speak at any length in reply to some argument, we are told that our sex is volatile and shallow.

My sisters, do you know where the fault lies that has brought us to this pass? It is all due to women’s lack of energy and spirit. We ourselves drew back in the first instance, and by-and-by that came to be regarded as an immutable rule of conduct.

Sisters, let us today investigate the causes which have led to this want of spirit and energy among women. May it not be because we insist on binding up our girls’ feet at an early age, speaking of their “three-inch golden lilies” and their “captivating little steps”? May it not be, I say, that this process of foot-binding is what has sapped and destroyed all our energy and spirit?

Today my blood is up, and I want to stir your blood as well, my sisters, and rouse you to a sense of your degradation. All women should, in the first place, refuse to adorn themselves with paint and powder, or trick themselves out in seductive guise, realizing that every human being has his own natural countenance given to him by God … In bringing forward this question of unbound feet, my sisters, I want you to realize that the result of having feet of the natural size will be to abolish the evils attendant on injured bones and muscles and an enfeebled constitution — surely a cause for unbounded rejoicing. …

If one day we succeed in wiping out this horrible blot on our civilization, our bodies will begin to grow stronger, and the steps we take in walking will become a pleasure instead of a pain. Having thus regained their natural energy, the whole sex will progress without difficulty, and an endless store of happiness will be built up for thousands of generations of women yet unborn.

But if you shrink from this reform, and wish to retain the pretty sight of small feet beneath your petticoats, you will remain imprisoned to the end of the chapter in the seclusion of your inner apartments, quite devoid of any strength of character, and it will be impossible to manifest the native brilliancy of the female sex. … Let there be thorough enlightenment on the subject of foot-binding, and progress in the matter of equal rights for men and women will surely follow.

That’s being on the right side of history.

In these last days of the decrepit Qing, prophets and revolutionaries with visions of a better tomorrow grew thick on the ground.

Qiu distinguished herself by her eloquence among Tokyo’s Chinese expatriates. Her powerful vision of women reborn as equals, and China reborn as independent and strong, must have had a bit of that personal-is-political vibe.

We sisters must learn to put aside everything we have preoccupied ourselves with before and focus on what we must do for our future — as if our former selves are dead and we have returned to this world in other forms of humanity.

-Qiu Jin in Tokyo, 1904 (Source)

Returning to her homeland, she found wage work as a teacher and her life’s work as her era’s most famous female activist: she artfully combined vocation and avocation by using her school as a cover to train revolutionary fighters.

And if contemporaries had been shocked by her foot un-binding and marriage un-doing, they hadn’t seen anything when it came to gender transgression. Qiu dressed in men’s clothes, rode horseback astride, trained in swordplay, and put out China’s first women’s journal. Her intimate friend — and possibly her lesbian lover — Wu Zhiying, whose biographical essays helped cement Qiu’s posthumous fame, remembered her friend as

forthright. When she happened to meet benighted ones, she would confront them head-on, leaving little room for compromise. People often held this against her. Some even compared her to Sophia [Perekovskaya] and Madame Roland. She would answer [to such appellations] without much thought.

(Quoted in Hu Ying, “Writing Qiu Jin’s Life: Wu Zhiying and Her Family Learning,” Late Imperial China, December 2004)

How it would have crowned the character arc for this once-hobbled housewife had the insurrectionary plot she masterminded with her cousin Xu Xilin succeeded! Maybe it was a little too operatic even for the fates to swallow.

In the event, the hour of the Manchus’ destruction would not arrive for another four years, although it would come at the hands of another secret-society plot.

But Qiu Jin’s got sniffed out by the authorities and busted pre-emptively; our day’s hero made a brave but only symbolic last stand at her school, then was taken into custody and tortured. She yielded a line of poetry, but would not implicate comrades.

“Autumn wind, autumn rain — they make one die of sorrow.”

Qiu Jin was publicly beheaded at Shaoxing. Within five years (and the realization of that revolution she had lost her life pursuing), memorial sites and statues were going up to her memory around China.


Shaoxing statue of Qiu Jin. (cc) image from jensimon7.

* She wrote poetry throughout her life; there are some selections of Qiu Jin poetry translated to English here.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Artists,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,History,Intellectuals,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Revolutionaries,Women

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1977: Princess Misha’al bint Fahd al Saud and her lover

9 comments July 15th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1977, a 19-year-old royal adulteress and her paramour were executed in a Jeddah parking lot by the order of the girl’s powerful grandfather.

Princess Misha’al‘s fate has been obscured by secrecy and the Rashomon-like interpretations imposed upon it by observers.

In its outline (and the first stock interpretation we’re imposing) it’s that timeless human tragedy, the love story, in which headstrong royal daughter and suffocating traditional family square off over the seditious power of the feminine libido.

The princess, in a youthful arranged marriage by most accounts, took up with a Saudi boy while both were studying abroad in cosmopolitan Beirut, and dangerously attempted to maintain the affair back in the royal kingdom to the point of a quixotic (and obviously foiled) escape attempt. Whether under color of a judicial proceeding — the story says Misha’al refused to walk away by simply renouncing her lover and defiantly brought down the death sentence by confessing adultery — or simply on his own authority, the girl’s staunchly conservative* grandfather exercised his right as tribal patriarch to inflict an honor killing for the disgrace they had brought on the family.

The execution in Jeddah — she by gunshot,** he by a very clumsy beheading — that is supposed to have occurred on this date was public, but quiet; news of it got abroad only slowly and incompletely. Small wonder that, once it did, the blended motifs of Romeo and Juliet, harem titillation and oil politics made dynamite material for high-, middle- or lowbrow exploitation.

In 1980, the affair became the subject of one of the most notorious television programs ever aired, the docudrama Death of a Princess. This film’s airing in Britain in 1980 led Riyadh to expel the British ambassador, and cost £200 million of lost revenue for the UK from canceled orders and product boycotts by the Saudis.†

It was aired on in the United States on PBS in 1980 to similar controversy, as oil companies rushed to distance themselves from it.

Rebroadcast in 2005, Death of a Princess is available online for your judgment (as is this partial script): is this a muckraking expose of a shameful crime? orientalist heavy petting? “a sensitive and thoughtful exploration of the Arab dilemma,” as per its own advance publicity? and what did the official apologies (and in only a few countries, censorship) say about the political weight of the petroleum industry?

These, meanwhile, are the western reactions, already removed from events by a further layer of mediation, a forest of axes seeking grinding. If the writer who composed this piece is to be believed, the executed girl has posthumously achieved a sort of universal symbolic gravity in the Arab world, standing for the plight of any hopeless cause of justice dashed against authoritarian power.

* For the House of Saud, it must be recalled, the personal was political in the problematic confrontation between tradition and modernity athwart the desert kingdom’s sea of oil.

** “Princess Misha’al” was executed fully veiled, which permits the rumor that the slain woman was actually a surrogate and the onetime royal favorite lives on incognito somewhere.

† According to the July 4, 1980 London Times.

Part of the Themed Set: The Feminine Mystique.

Editor’s note: References to “Princess Misha” corrected; thanks to hannah for the clarification.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,History,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Royalty,Saudi Arabia,Scandal,Sex,Shot,Volunteers,Women,Wrongful Executions

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