1908: Grete Beier, who wanted the fairy tale

1 comment July 23rd, 2015 Headsman

Marie Margarethe (Grete) Beier, the daughter of the late Mayor of Brand-Erbisdorf, was beheaded on the fallbeil on this date in 1908 for murdering her fiance. While her crime was banal, the consequent spectacle lit up newswires all the globe ’round.


Despite the marquee half of this contradictory headline in the Adelaide, Australia Advertiser (Aug. 26, 1908), the execution occurred behind prison walls. About two hundred tickets were distributed to members of the public (all men), but thousands of applicants (which included many women) were denied them. These “ticket holders rushed in pell mell in their eagerness to get the best places. Men fell and fought wildly.”

Secretly carrying on with a lover named Johannes Merker, Beier (German Wikipedia link) was forced by her parents — a working-class couple made good — into pledging her troth to a respectable engineer named Heinrich Pressler.

With “the face of an angel and the heart of a fiend”* the charming Beier contrived a plan to truly have it all: on May 13, 1907, she visited her would-be husband and spiked his drink with potassium cyanide — then to be sure of her project, had him close his eyes and open his mouth on her flirty promise of a sweet surprise. Then she shoved his own revolver between his lips and fired, abandoning at the scene of her crime a forged will to her benefit, a forged suicide note lamenting a purported affair with a vengeful Italian woman, and forged love letters corroborating the latter, fictional, relationship.

She was some weeks on towards her way to getting away with it — the coroner did indeed take Herr Pressler for a suicide — before suspicions as to the dead man’s testament led police to set a watch on her and unravel the web. Grete Beier confessed, in an unsuccessful gambit to secure mercy.

She reportedly died bravely, albeit slightly appalled by the size of the audience that had been admitted to gawk at her disgraceful finale.


Detail view (click for the full image) of the courthouse yard at Freiburg being readied for Grete Beier’s beheading. Image via the invaluable Bois de Justice.

* Her feminine fiendishness was greatly exacerbated to contemporaries by stories that she had also aborted three bastard children.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Guillotine,History,Murder,Pelf,Sex,Women

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1896: John Pryde, Brainerd murderer

2 comments July 23rd, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1896, John Pryde hanged in Crow Wing County jail for a Brainerd murder over a little bit of money.

Pryde had worked all the preceding winter in a lumber camp but closed his engagement (so he said) with a Valentine‘s Day jaunt to Lothrop — abandoned in the present day but then the terminal stop on the Brainerd & Northern Minnesota Railway, where the lumber he’d been hewing would be loaded up for the Brainerd sawmill. According to this site about Minnesota ghost towns, Lothrop “was a typical hell-raising, end-of-tracks town.”

Some of the hell so raised consisted in the timeless pastime of wagering on small cardboard rectangles, and to hear Pryde’s (possibly suspect) account of it he got sharked at the poker table: ” I knew nothing about cards, only what I had found out by looking on. I tried the game and won, at one time being $100 ahead, and if I had known enough to quit then I would not be where I am today. But I was flush and my companions urged me to keep right on, saying that luck was with me and I could win everything in sight. I did so, to my regret, and lost all my winnings and also my winter’s wages, having but a few dollars in my pocket when I reached Brainerd, and I was all broke up.”

Back in Brainerd so penniless and broke up, Pryde decided a buddy from the logging camp could supply him and sent Andrew Peterson a letter urging him to hie to Brainerd immediately for a job that was waiting him. Peterson did so; Pryde met him on his return on Feb. 24 and escorted his victim around the outskirts of the city to a spot sufficiently remote to shoot him in the back of the head and rummage through his possessions.

Pryde found one dollar.

Unfortunately for Pryde, Peterson survived — not for good, just long enough to be found and identify his killer before he succumbed and made it a murder charge.

By the time authorities took Pryde into custody on this intelligence, he had already made arrangements for another logger to come on down for another “job”, with the same object in mind. (But hopefully more than a dollar in his pockets.)

With that pleasing want of artifice that can characterize the Upper Midwest at its finest, Pryde admitted everything and lodged a guilty plea just days after Peterson’s March 3 death. He did add that he regretted the mistake he made in not slashing Peterson’s throat to finish him for sure, and then burning the body to hide the crime.

Pryde’s fall — from an employed and relatively flush young man on the make to a condemned murderer — took all of three weeks.

There were suggestions that Pryde might have pulled the same trick on a different fellow who had disappeared from the work camp. He rejected that quite indignantly.

This story from his last days, and including his gallows address (blaming gambling) and his written last statement (blaming gambling) shows a man really locking in a narrative.

What we know about John Pryde is that he killed in cold calculation someone who was in no way connected to his gambling woes, and he was preparing to do the same a second time. There’s really only so much misbehavior one gets to write off to tilt. But Pryde was a young man and we might allow that a sense of guilt (however belated) and a wish to reconcile himself to his loved ones (however hypocritically) are not of themselves discreditable qualities. There were no protracted appeals or dramatic stays of execution to grow him into any other person but the one who shot his work chum dead for a buck. He had a bare five months to make sense of it all: one wonders if his parents in Chicago, who received this last missive from him, ever did.

I received your letter and was glad to hear from you, but I know that it was a hard thing for you to hear what I have done. Well, mother, I have thrown my whole life away, and not only that, how I have disgraced you and pa, and my only sister for the rest of your life; it is true that I made an awful mistake in life. Dear mother, my life was thrown away by the gambling hell hole, there is nothing in the world but that, and it would break most anyone up. It was my first time to gamble, and I was led away by one of my companions and was led into an eternal destruction, that is what put me in the place I am in now. Now my lot is a hard one, but I have made my peace with the Lord, and am prepared to meet my father in Heaven. God will forgive the most sinful if we only believe in Him. The Bible says that God has forgiven the greatest of sins.

I am very sorry over this matter, but it can’t be helped now. There is one thing, that I hope this will warn other young men and will put them on the straight road and show them what gambling will lead a young man to do, first from one thing and then to another.

Dear mother, now I have given you all the news that I have. Oh, dear mother, I cannot reward you for your kindness. You always stuck up for me, and if I had only taken your advice, I don’t think I would be where I am today. It is true what you said. I had a good home, and did not realize what a home was. I know I ought not to have left home but we young men do not pay enough attention to our mother and father. Now, father and mother, don’t take this matter too hard, as it won’t help it in the least. We all have go to go some time, sooner or later. There is a home prepared for us all and there we will have peace and joy. Now I will bring this letter to a close, hoping it will find you all well, as I remain, your most loving son,

JOHN PRYDE.

Now, I will bid you good bye, good bye. Father, forget me not, keep this letter to remember me.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Minnesota,Murder,Pelf,USA

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1635: Hans Ulrich Schaffgotsch, man in the middle

Add comment July 23rd, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1635,* the German aristocrat and general Hans Ulrich [von] Schaffgotsch lost his head in Regensburg.

Schaffgotsch (German Wikipedia entry: most information about him online is in German) would have appeared to have won the birthright lottery. Sure, he was no king, but being born to a hereditary Silesian baron of distinguished blue-blood lineage, and being dynastically married to a princess, put him squarely within the 1 percent’s 1 percent.**

Schaffgotsch caught one very bad break: he was born to come of age during the Thirty Years’ War.

The Schaffgotsch family had different branches going, but Hans Ulrich’s was Protestant — and this was also the predominant faith in early 17th century Silesia. (It adhered to the unsuccessful Bohemian Revolt.)

Doctrinal differences aside, Schaffgotsch had favorable terms from the Catholic emperor. He also made himself good friends with a fantastically wealthy duke named Albrecht von Wallenstein. Wallenstein was a little shaky on the religion question himself; he’d been raised Protestant and converted to Catholicism for unknown reasons.

When the Thirty Years’ War came calling again late in the 1620s, Wallenstein used his capacious wealth to field a large army in service of Ferdinand, and Schaffgotsch went right along as the generalissimo’s able adjutant. But Ferdinand, who was short on both cash and troops to call his own, soon came to fear this capable general upon whom he overmuch depended. When the opportunity arose, the sovereign abruptly relieved Wallenstein of command in 1630 — only to have to reinstate him in 1632† when his replacement got killed.

It turns out Ferdinand did have good cause for suspicion. Wallenstein was dissatisfied with the emperor’s treatment as well, and covertly treated with the Protestant league to switch sides or overthrow the emperor and rule in Bohemia. The detection of these plans in Vienna led Ferdinand to have Wallenstein judged by a secret court, then assassinated in 1634.‡

As his aide, Schaffgotsch too was soon dealt with. Unlike the dangerous Wallenstein, Schaffgotsch was a small enough target to arrest and prosecute in the conventional way — which happened in 1635. Schaffgotsch obstinately refused under torture to admit any involvement in treason, but he was condemned to death all the same.

The Silesian aristocrat might have felt hard done by, but he relieved some annoyance with an old-fashioned shopping spree. Schaffgotsch went out in style (German link) by plumping for black drapings for the scaffold, ordering a custom coffin, doing up all his servants in black mourning garb, and bribing the executioner of Regensburg to behead him seated in a chair. (The lord rooted himself so firmly in his seat that his head flew off at the sword’s stroke without his body toppling over.)

Afterwards, Schaffgotsch’s body was laid out for last respects for two days in Regensburg Blauen Krebs inn, which still exists to this day. (And has the story on its website.)

* Gregorian date. With Catholic and Protestant powers both going at it, dating gets confusing in this period; it would have been July 13 per the Julian calendar still in use by most Protestants, and this date is also sometimes attributed.

** Click here for some appealing views of Kynast (Chojnik), one of Schaffgotsch’s castles.

† Wallenstein commanded Habsburg forces at the Battle of Lutzen in November 1632, where Sweden’s King Gustavus Adolphus was killed.

‡ Wallenstein’s treachery and death are the topic of Schiller’s play Wallenstein.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Habsburg Realm,History,Nobility,Poland,Power,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Wartime Executions

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1433: Pavel Kravar, Hussite emissary

Add comment July 23rd, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1433, Pavel Kravar — known in the place of his death as Paul Craw — was, “found an obstinate heretic, he was convicted, condemned, put to the fire and burned to ashes”* at St. Andrews, Scotland.

Kravar was a Czech (probably) physician who entered that hotbed of religious reform, the University of Prague, the very year after Jan Hus burned at the stake.

Adopting the burgeoning Hussite creed with gusto, Kravar spent the 1420s proselytizing in Poland as a side gig to a medical practice. (He was the court physician to the King of Poland, who was briefly friendly with the Hussite cause.)

In the early 1430s, perhaps as part of an aggressive, Europe-wide Hussite propaganda campaign, Kravar turned up in evangelizing in Scotland.

Lest this strike the latter-day reader as bizarre — a Bohemian church seeking converts in the Highlands — it bears remembering that Hus himself took inspiration from a Briton, Englishman John Wycliffe; one of Wycliffe’s followers, James Resby, had become the first documented Christian reformer martyred at the stake in Scotland in 1408. There are other traces of anti-Lollard legislation in the first decades of the 15th century that hint at some level of heretical ferment abroad.** And in the widest sense, the Hussite movement had, until its imminent military destruction, a legitimate shot at mounting the sort of continent-wide challenge to ecclesiastical orthodoxy that the Reformation accomplished a century later.

That events didn’t quite work out that way was hard luck for Kravar, who had headed straight to the country’s only university town where his reformist ideas (and Latin lingua franca) might have some currency. There he may also have run into the realm’s most implacable Inquisitor: Kravar’s actual activities,his objectives, his specific doctrines, and the circumstances of his capture and condemnation — these are all most obscure. The best we have is a hostile chronicler allowing that the Hussite was “fluent and skilled in divinity and in biblical argument.”†

Tudor-era Scottish cleric John Knox filled in the dubious detail that Kravar had been gagged en route to the stake with a large brass ball, to prevent his exhorting the crowd; more contemporary-to-Kravar sources unfortunately did not think to notice this picturesque expedient.

* From Walter Bower in Book XVI of the Scotichronicon (1440s), via Paul Vysny, “A Hussite in Scotland: The Mission of Pavel Krava? to St Andrews in 1433” in The Scottish Historical Review, April 2003. It’s not clear from the primary source whether events proceeded from trial to execution all in the same day, but July 23 is the date typically given for Kravar’s death and certainly the last date of his life distinctly in the historical record.

** See Vysny, op cit.

†Bower, again; via Vysny, again.

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Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Doctors,Execution,God,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Scotland,Uncertain Dates

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1756: Four members of the Swedish Hovpartiet

Add comment July 23rd, 2010 Headsman

This date in 1756 saw the decapitation in Stockholm of four nobles tight with Queen Louisa Ulrika for an attempted coup d’etat.

Louisa Ulrika was a sister to Prussia’s Frederick the Great, married off to the Swedish crown for reasons of statecraft. Old Fritz had, all the same, suggested a different sibling to the Scandinavians inasmuch as Louisa was “an arrogant, temperamental intriguer.”

They probably should have taken the hint. Instead, they were taken with the beauty and the brains.

As Frederick predicted, Louisa found the Swedish setup during its 18th century Age of Liberty quite unsatisfactory: the monarchy played second fiddle to a powerful parliament, the Riksdag.

Before long, she commenced her temperamental intriguing.

Some well-placed bakhsheesh among the parliamentarians enabled Louisa to exercise some pull behind the scenes. But overall, the Queen thought much better of that Prussian system she had left behind: enlightened despotism, with an accent on the despotism. Wasn’t this supposed to be the Age of Absolutism?

Comely and charismatic, she soon began gathering supporters of this idea around her court, the so-called Hovpartiet (Swedish link) of strong-monarchy types. And eventually, Louisa felt strong enough herself to throw off the shackles of the estates — dragging along in this scheme the king, Adolf Frederick.

To finance this ambitious project, Louisa literally pawned the crown jewels.

Naturally, putting the crown jewels in hock is a slightly different matter from fencing a hot Rolex. The bankers who obtained this impressive debt security started making their own inquiries, and diplomatic rumors started circulating. That obnoxious Riksdag started demanding to see and inventory the royal hoard on the presumptuous grounds that it was state property.

Stalling for time against these persistent auditors, Louisa managed to gather some of the armaments intended for her project and set about hiring Stockholm criminals for a false flag operation which would enable the crown to restore order against some manufactured civic disturbances and thereby seize state power.

Erik Brahe (the one who was executed on this date). Image from this public domain German text; German speakers can get more on this day’s doing here.

These henchmen, notably bastard noble son Ernst Angel, indiscreetly boasted about the coming royal putsch down at the local watering-hole, and pretty soon the whole embarrassing thing had been blown wide open.

Embarrassing to Louisa, that is. The royals got to keep their jobs — though Adolf Frederick had feared he might go the way of Charles Stuart.

But for the less pedigreed members of the plot, there was a heavier price to pay than shame: eight men in the Hovpartiet lost their heads.

This date saw the end of Erik Brahe (Swedish Wikipedia link), Johan Puke (and his), Jakob Gustav Horn and Magnus Stålsvärd.

Three days later, the loose-lipped Ernst Angel joined them, along with Gabriel Mozelius, Per Christernin and Israel Escholin. (Names-to-dates associations from this Swedish article.)

A Genealogical Digression…

One is caught up by the distinguished name “Brahe”, one of those among the first batch of beheadings on July 23, 1756. This aristocratic cavalryman was indeed a member of the redoubtable Brahe family (more Swedish) whose most illustrious offspring was Danish astronomer Tycho Brahe. (Although there was also a Brahe among the casualties of the Stockholm Bloodbath: they go way back.)

At any rate, this date’s Erik was a distant relative to Tycho, and a relative as well of Tycho’s Swedish cousin also named Erik Brahe, who was at Tycho Brahe’s deathbed in 1601. That other, older Erik Brahe has lately come in for some suspicion as a guy who might have murdered Tycho Brahe. Growing misgivings about the circumstances of the astronomer’s sudden death have just this year caused Tycho Brahe’s remains to be exhumed for further study. (But so far, no smoking gun.)

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Nobility,Power,Public Executions,Scandal,Sweden,Torture,Treason

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1977: 178 enemies of the people

1 comment July 23rd, 2009 Headsman

A final example of the S-21 archives discovered by the Documentation Center is more mundane, yet poignant and telling. This particular document is of a type we refer to as an “execution log,” a daily record of executions at a given security center, in this case, at Tuol Sleng itself. Dated July 23, 1977, it is signed You Huy (a chief of guards) and authorized by Hor, the deputy director of S-21. The typewritten form lists biographical details on eighteen prisoners executed that day and, almost as an afterthought, in Huy’s handwriting a note at the bottom adds, “Also killed 160 children today for a total of 178 enemies killed.” This chilling glimpse into the Khmer Rouge internal security services is but a tiny example of the tens of thousands of documents discovered by the Documentation Center of Cambodia.

The “You Huy” named in Craig Etcheson’s After the Killing Fields: Lessons from the Cambodian Genocide is this man, Him Huy:

Huy survived his stint as a guard at the notorious Tuol Sleng prison, which was no mean feat: guards were routinely arrested and executed themselves. (Of course, prisoners had it worse.)

Now a 54-year-old farmer, Huy has been a spellbinding presence at and outside of Cambodia’s ongoing-as-of-this-writing “mixed tribunal”, reckoning with the horrors of the Khmer Rouge.

Like the method of execution.

All prisoners were blindfolded so they did not know where they were taken and their hands were tied up to prevent them from contesting us …

They were asked to sit on the edge of the pits and they were struck with stick on their necks …

Their throats were slashed before we removed their handcuffs and clothes, and they were thrown into the pits.

Him Huy has argued that guards like him “were victims too”. At least some victims and outside observers view him as a man more important to the killing process than Huy makes himself out to be.

Both accounts, though, could be true simultaneously: everyone in Cambodia was in danger of being purged, and guards at Tuol Sleng could find themselves inmates for the slightest derelictions of duty or enthusiasm. From April 17, 1975, Cambodia fell into madness.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Cambodia,Execution,History,Mass Executions,Notable Participants,Ripped from the Headlines,Summary Executions,Wrongful Executions

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1794: Alexandre de Beauharnais, widowing Josephine for Napoleon

7 comments July 23rd, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, Napoleon Bonaparte’s future Empress became a widow.

Alexandre de Beauharnais — excuse me, that’s Alexandre François Marie de Beauharnais, Vicomte de Beauharnais to you — a liberal noble from Martinique who had served as a general in the American Revolution, was a pol with some juice in the earlier stages of the French Revolution, even declining to become Minister of War in June 1793.

It was a long fall to a short chop when he was accused of allowing Mainz to fall to the Germans through incompetence and/or insufficient revolutionary ardor. His brother Augustin was also among the day’s batch.

Just another forgettable aristocrat, shaved by the national razor.

But surviving Beauharnais — in prison herself at this moment, and in some danger of following his footsteps were it not for the imminent coup of Thermidor — was his wife by arranged marriage, 31-year-old sugar plantation heiress Josephine, later immortalized by remarrying the officer who would go on to bend all Europe to his will, Napoleon Bonaparte.

Thanks to his widow’s well-chosen conquest, Beauharnais’ children, dynastically married off under Napoleon’s adoption, would go on to sire a plethora of European royalty.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Military Crimes,Nobility,Not Executed,Notably Survived By,Politicians,Public Executions,Soldiers

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