1402: Fang Xiaoru, of the ten agnates

Add comment July 25th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1402, the Yongle Emperor cemented his seizure of the throne by purging Confucian scholar-bureaucrat Fang Xiaoru with a legendary extermination to ten degrees of kinship.

Our numerous executions on this occasion bring us to the close of a three-year civil war that ensued the death of the Ming dynasty founder, known as the Hongwu Emperor. In this conflict, the old man’s designated successor, a grandson who took the ironic regnal moniker of Jianwen Emperor (meaning “establishing civility”), was defeated and deposed by one of the old man’s sons, a prince whose name can be transliterated as Zhu Di or Chu Ti.

The uncle was much the abler commander while the nephew was plagued by defections. In July of 1402, Zhu Di’s forces captured the capital city of Nanjing; the Jianwen emperor vanished into history’s fogs — burned to death, Zhu Di would claim, citing an unrecognizable corpse charred in the blaze that consumed the imperial palace; rumors long persisted that he had occulted himself into the mountains in a monk’s robes.

Either way, Zhu Di had occasion now to announce himself the Yongle Emperor. “Perpetual happiness,” that one means. And to make sure that everyone would real happy with the new arrangements, Boss Yongle insisted on the immediate fealty of the capital’s intelligentsia. “Those who are guilty I do not dare to pardon,” he said of the late emperor’s ex-ministers. “Those who are innocent I do not dare to execute.”

Most of those presented with these alternatives chose judiciously, as attested by the Yongle Emperor’s subsequent 22-year reign.

But our principal Fang Xiaoru was the most famous among a number of scholars to stand athwart history yelling stop.* For malcontents like Fang, the Yongle Emperor offered a compelling dissuasion in the form of the ancient “extermination of nine agnates”: the collective execution of the traitor’s entire family, compassing nine different classes of relations.

  1. The criminal himself
  2. His parents
  3. His grandparents
  4. His children (and children’s spouses)
  5. His grandchildren
  6. The criminal’s spouse
  7. The spouse’s parents
  8. The criminal’s aunts and uncles
  9. The criminal’s cousins

We don’t know how all his cousins and in-laws felt about the matter but for his own part, Fang was undaunted: “Never mind nine agnates; give me ten!” And that’s just what they did, drafting the scholar’s own pupils into the hecatomb as the tenth degree, an extremity unequaled in the history of China or academia.

All told, the ten agnates numbered 873 people, among perhaps as many as ten thousand noncompliant officials and family members purged overall. Yet still as he died, hewed apart at the waist, Fang dipped his finger in his own gore and scrawled on the floor his own last verdict on the new emperor: the single Chinese character meaning “usurper”.


An execution by “waist severing” delivers what it promises.

* Others include Huang Zicheng and Lian Zining. See “Venerating the Martyrs of the 1402 Usurpation: History and Memory in the Mid and Late Ming Dynasty” by Peter Ditmanson, T’oung Pao, Second Series, Vol. 93, Fasc. 1/3 (2007), pp. 110-158.

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1242: William de Marisco, pirate knight

Add comment July 25th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1242, the knight, outlaw, and pirate William de Marisco was drawn by a horse to Coventry and put to the pains of disemboweling and quartering — albeit only after he had already been hanged to death.


Illustration of William de Marisco’s execution by the amazing 13th century chronicler Matthew Paris.

He’d eventually be damned as a kingslayer but Marisco’s doom began with the 1235 murder of a messenger of King Henry III named Henry Clement, slain at the very gates of Westminster “to our no small dishonour and scandal of the realm.” Suspicion settled on the Mariscos, who might have been motivated by Clement’s boasting of having helped recently lay in his grave the Earl of Pembroke, a magnate and great rival to the king.*

Marisco, whose architectural legacy for us is Coonagh Castle, County Limerick in Ireland, fled the scene of the crime and took refuge on Lundy Island, a gorgeous and remote fingerbone in the westerly Bristol Channel that had once been granted to the Knights Templar.**


Lundy’s west coast.
(cc) image by P_Dean.

There, as our chronicler-illustrator Matthew Paris describes, he made his way thereafter by piracy.

Whilst these occurrences were taking place, William Marsh [“de Marisco” means “of the Marshes” -ed.], son of Geoffrey Marsh, took up his quarters on an island near Bristol, called Lundy, a place impregnable by the nature of its situation, where he lived like a pirate with a number of proscribed and wicked men, indulging in plunder and rapine, and, attended by his companions, traversed the places on the neighbouring coast, despoiling the inhabitants of their property, especially wine and other provisions. By sudden incursions lie frequently carried off vast booty from the country lying near the island, and in many ways injured the kingdom of England both by land and sea, and caused great loss to the native and foreign merchants.

William de Marisco would manage seven years on the lam, seizing victuals and booty and ransomable hostages as he could from his island fastness. He’d been dispossessed of his lands in Ireland and nursed against King Henry the personal grudge of an aggrieved nobleman.

Such injuries were known to heal over time, and amid the tangle of authority and kinship among medieval Europe’s bluebloods, today’s rebel might become tomorrow’s hand of the king. But in 1238, William cut the roads behind him and made himself permanently anathema by allegedly sending an assassin after Henry III. Matthew Paris, again, with a story that will easily bear the interpretation that Marisco’s name was put into a deranged regicide’s mouth by his torturers:

on the day after the Nativity of St. Mary, a certain learned esquire, as it is said, came to the king’s court at Woodstock, pretending that he was insane, and said to the king, “Resign to me the kingdom, which you have unjustly usurped, and so long detained from me;” he also added, that he bore the sign of royalty on his shoulder. The king’s attendants wanted to beat him and drive him away from the royal presence, but the king prevented those who were rushing on him from violence, saying, “Let the insane man rave as becomes him, for such people’s words have not the influence of truth.” In the middle of the night, however, this same man entered the king’s bedchamber window, carrying an open knife, and approached the king’s couch, but was confused at not finding him there, and immediately began to look for him in the several chambers of his residence. The king was, by God’s providence, then sleeping with the queen. But one of the queen’s maids, named Margaret Biseth, was by chance awake, and was singing psalms by the light of a candle (for she was a holy maid, and one devoted to God), and when she saw this madman searching all the private places, to kill the king, and frequently asking in a terrible voice where the king was, she was greatly alarmed, and began to utter repeated cries. At her dreadful cry the king’s attendants awoke, and leaped from their beds with all speed, and running to the spot, broke open the door, which this robber had firmly secured with a bolt, and seized the robber, and, notwithstanding his resistance, bound him fast and secured him. He, after some time, confessed that he had been sent there to kill the king, after the manner of the assassins, by William Marsh, son of Greoffrey Marsh, and he stated that others had conspired to commit the same crime.

Paris has evident contempt for William, but he does note that “William boldly denied all these charges, yet he did not obtain any credit, nor was he listened to; he therefore, however unadvisedly, betook himself to out-of-the-way places, and became a fugitive and an outlaw.” It is not clear to this author that outlawry is “unadvisable” vis-a-vis standing to the judgment of a king who is certain you have attempted his life; nevertheless, it is usually little better than the temporary expedient for the doomed.

On the feast of St. James, by the king’s order, the said William, with sixteen of his accomplices taken with him, was tried and condemned, and, by the king’s order, was sentenced to an ignominious death. He was, therefore, first dragged from Westminster to the Tower of London, and from thence to that instrument of punishment called a gibbet† suspended on which he breathed forth his miserable life. After he had grown stiff in death, his body was let down and disembowelled; his entrails were immediately burnt on the spot, and his wretched body divided into four parts, which were sent to the four principal cities of the kingdom, that the sight of them might strike terror into all beholders.

His sixteen accomplices were all dragged through London at the horse’s tail, and hung on gibbets. The said William, after his condemnation, when about to imdergo the sentence pronounced upon him, invoking the divine judgment to witness, boldly declared that he was entirely free and guiltless of the crime of treason imputed to him, and likewise of the murder of the aforesaid clerk Clement; he also asserted that he had betaken himself to the aforesaid island for no other reason than to avoid the king’s anger, which he had always above all things wished to pacify by submitting to any kind of trial, or by any other humiliation; but that, after he had taken refuge as a fugitive in the said island, he was obliged to prolong his miserable life by seizing on provisions wherever he could find them. He then poured out his soul in confession before God, to J. de St. Giles, one of the brethren of the Preacher order, and confessed his sins with contrition, not excusing himself and giving vent to evil words, but rather accusing himself. This discreet preacher and confessor then administered gentle comfort to him, and dismissed him in peace, persuading him that he underwent the death to which he was doomed by way of repentance. And thus, as before mentioned, horrible to relate, he endured not one, but several dreadful deaths.

Readers of Latin can peruse the transcript of the trial, which has surprisingly survived the ravages of century, in this 1895 English Historical Review article.

* Pembroke’s brother and heir was also suspected initially, but was able to clear himself; however, he was later made to take a vow no longer to protect William de Marisco, suggesting that Pembroke was at least in simpatico with the hit. Both William and Geoffrey de Marisco had been fined previously for adhering to the Pembroke side in a fight with the king.

** The Templars at best barely possessed Lundy and the Mariscos who claimed it opposed those banker-knights’ stake, successfully.

† Paris’s unfamiliar marking of the term “gibbet” is interesting here; according to dictionary.com it was during the 13th century that this word for gallows entered Middle English from French.

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1946: The Moore’s Ford Bridge lynchings

2 comments July 25th, 2016 Headsman

A quadruple lynching in rural Georgia on this date in 1946 shocked America.

These murders of two African-American couples near Moore’s Ford Bridge are described even to this day as America’s last unresolved mass lynching; that dubious milestone distinction also forms the subtitle of Laura Wexler’s Fire in the Canebrake, a 2004 book about the incident.

Just last year — 2015 — the FBI was reported to be investigating the Moore’s Ford lynching anew. SixtySeventy years on, it’s still just possible that a perpetrator or two remains alive who might be brought to book … provided the curtain of silence Walton County drew around itself so long ago can finally be lifted.

The victims of the lynching were the Dorseys (George and Mae) and the Malcoms (Roger and Dorothy), black sharecroppers employed by a farmer named J. Loy Harrison. Roger Malcom had been clapped in jail in Monroe, Ga., for stabbing a white man; on the day of the lynching, Harrison drove Dorothy Malcom and the Dorseys to Monroe, where he posted bail for Roger.

Just why Harrison did this appears to be one of the many mysteries of Moore’s Ford Bridge. Harrison was a Klansman, so one possible inference is that he was complicit in the events that were about to transpire; however, as Wexler notes, this bailing-out “favor” would not have been at all unusual for a Walton County plantation owner to do for his help.

[L]ike many large landowners in Georgia in 1946, he was perpetually in need of more help than [his sharecropping] tenants could provide. There were few prospects in the immediate community; as in much of the rural South, the area surrounding Loy Harrison’s farm had shrunk massively in population … Without a sufficient supply of “free” workers to fill his needs, Loy Harrison often did … pay off a prisoner’s fine, or post his bond, and let him work off the debt on his farm.

Loy Harrison was far from unusual in that respect. Large landowners all over the rural South, faced with both war-induced and urban migration, used the local jail as a labor pool. And often the local sheriffs and city police made sure the pool was stocked. They’d lock black people up on a Saturday night on minor– or trumped-up — charges, such as gambling, possession of liquor, or public drunkenness. When a landowner came to the jail on Monday morning to pay a prisoner’s fine, the police claimed part of it for making the arrest, the jailer claimed part of it for “turning the key,” and the landlord took hom a cheap, reliable worker who was bound to him until his debt was paid. … The practice of landowners buying prisoners — particularly black prisoners — out of jail was so common in Walton and Oconee counties that it had its own slogan. “If you keep yourself out of the grave,” landlords told their black tenants, “I’ll keep you off the chain gang.”

Returning from Monroe with his four sharecroppers in tow, Harrison was stopped near the bridge by a gang of armed white men — men that Harrison would later tell investigators he did not recognize, although it was 5:30 p.m. on a summer’s evening and nobody was wearing a disguise.

“A big man who was dressed mighty proud in a double-breasted brown suit was giving the orders,” reported Harrison, who is the best we’re going to do for an eyewitness. “He pointed to Roger and said, ‘We want that nigger.’ Then he pointed to George Dorsey, my nigger, and said, ‘We want you too, Charlie.’ I said, ‘His name ain’t Charlie, he’s George.’ Someone said ‘Keep your damned big mouth shut. This ain’t your party.'”

The “party” entailed forcing all four black men and women — whatever their names were — out of Harrison’s car, lining them up in front of an ad hoc firing squad, and on the count of three, gunning them all down. That night, all four corpses would be found riddled with bullets (the coroner estimated some 60 gunshots had been fired in all) and strewn near the bridge. Dorothy Malcom was five months pregnant.


There are now annual re-enactments of this notorious lynching; here’s another from 2007. When the tradition began in 2005, whites were unwilling to participate and so the first instance was staged with an all-black cast — the lynchers donning white masks.

By the 1940s, Judge Lynch’s gavel did not fall nearly so often as it once had; these mob executions which had once gone abroad with such numbing frequency now took place only sporadically, about once, twice, or thrice per year* in all of the United States.

So the mass murder of four people in a single go at such a late date shook the country. NBC news headlined the event with unconcealed disgust:

140 million Americans were disgraced late yesterday, humiliated in their own eyes and in the eyes of the world by one of the most vicious lynchings to stain our national record. A gang of armed and degenerate, poor whites, waylaid a Negro man and another man and their wives on a country road 40 miles from Atlanta. The brief and sadistic orgy ended in the bodies being riddled by 60 bullets.


Library of Congress image of Roger and Dorothy Malcom’s funeral.

Whether or not the lynchers anticipated this wave of national attention, they were ready to handle it. FBI officials dispatched by President Harry S Truman were systematically stonewalled; a suspect list as long as your arm (55 names!) went nowhere because, in the words of a Georgia patrolman, “the best people in town won’t talk.” And that really does mean the best people; one lead the FBI pursued into the usual cul-de-sac was that the white supremacist ex-governor Eugene Talmadge actually sanctioned the lynchings as an electoral ploy during a hard-fought 1946 campaign to regain his office.

The best folks’ silence — and the dire warning issued by their fusillades into the Dorseys and the Malcoms — stopped the mouths of everyone else, too. A federal $12,500 reward went begging.

Robeson Tells Truman: Do Something About Lynchings Or Negroes Will

Paul Robeson, Negro baritone, spearhead of the American Crusade to End Lynching, said yesterday after a White House visit that he had told the President that if the Government did not do something to curb lynching, “the Negroes would.”

To this statement, Robeson said, the President took sharp exception. The President, he said, remarked that it sounded like a threat. Robeson told newspaper men he assured the President it was not a threat, merely a statement of fact about the temper of the Negro people …

When he was asked whether he was a Communist, Robeson described himself as “violently anti-Fascist.” He said he had opposed Fascism in other countries and saw no reason why he should not oppose Fascism in the United States.

Philadelphia Tribune, Sept. 24, 1946 (Via)

While investigators were spinning their wheels, activists catalyzed by the Moore’s Ford horror were leaping into action. Singer-activist Paul Robeson launched the American Crusade to End Lynching in response to this event, and led a delegation to the White House. In a combative meeting with President Truman, he demanded stronger federal action.

Truman, like many politicians had before, voiced sympathy but demurred as to tangible remedies: the time was forever not right to push such politically treacherous legislation.†

Robeson replied firmly that if the government would not act to protect black lives, “the Negroes would.” Truman affected great umbrage at this threat to law and order and had no time for Robeson’s describing lynch law as a human rights abuse of the sort that the U.S. had only just finished prosecuting at Nuremberg.

The feds weren’t interested in putting the screws to lynching. But they were definitely interested in putting the screws to Paul Robeson.

The Communist Robeson, whose impossibly gorgeous voice we have previously featured in hymns to leftist martyrs John Brown and Joe Hill, was even then being investigated as a subversive by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI. In time, Robeson’s passport would be revoked in part because he made bold while abroad to denounce racial injustice in the United States.

Come 1956, he was hailed before the House Un-American Activities Committee.


This audio is abridged; a more complete transcript can be read here.

No degree of dignity and self-possession in these inquisitions could avail Robeson, who not only did not regain his passport but was gradually levered out of America’s mainstream cultural life as punishment for his politics. He even remained estranged from the rising civil rights movement because his unwillingness to disavow his radical affiliations left him politically radioactive in those red-baiting days.

By the 1960s, the lynchings were a dead letter to those who were supposed to investigate them — just as the lynchers intended. Nobody had ever come close to being indicted. Robeson’s Crusade had gone by the wayside.

But they were not forgotten.

A young man named Bobby Howard, who was a five-year-old child in Walton County at the time the Dorseys and the Malcoms were gunned down, grew up to take an impolitic (not to mention dangerous) interest in the crime; he even pitched an investigation personally to Martin Luther King, Jr. shortly before the latter’s assassination.

All these years later, Howard remains the diligent custodian of the lynching’s memory, and he founded the Moore’s Ford Memorial Committee which among other things has established a historical marker near the site.

* In fact, there have never been so many as four recognized lynchings in any single calendar year in the United States since 1946.

** Talmadge’s 1946 gubernatorial campaign was demagoguing a 1944 Supreme Court decision that gave black voters access to racially desegregated primary elections. Talmadge would eventually win a Bush-v.-Gore-esque poll in which he lost the primary vote but won the county electors that at the time decided the race. (Talmadge carried Walton County by 78 votes.) Having done all that, he then dropped dead in December before he could take office and bequeathed his state — which had never thought to legislate the succession for this particular scenario — a constitutional crisis.

† All part of the great sausage-making of governance: Truman had met with a more moderate NAACP delegation a few days prior and set up one of those blue-ribbon commissions name of the President’s Committee on Civil Rights. Its manifold business affiliations and scanty deliverables were both considerably more welcome in Washington than was Robeson. See Penny Von Eschen’s Race against Empire: Black Americans and Anticolonialism, 1937-1957.

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1785: John Winship, family planner

2 comments July 25th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1785, a Sunderland-area farmer named John Winship was hanged for killing his maidservant Grace Smith with a poisonous draught of corrosive mercury sublimate which Winship had intended to induce an abortion.

His body was delivered to a local surgeon, who autopsied it and “in the presence of many gentlemen of the faculty” lectured on Winship’s organs as he dug them out (and extracted two intestinal worms).

the doctrine of the late Mr. Hewson, F.R.S. was demonstrated, that, in executions of this kind, death is not produced, as has been generally supposed, by an extravation of blood, occasioned by the rupture of the vessels of the brain, but by suffocation: as in the case of drowning, etc. (Newcastle Courant, July 30, 1785, quoted in this anti-abortion tract)

Grace Smith, who died four agonizing days after she ingested the toxin, perhaps did not sympathize overmuch with her killer’s unpleasant strangulation.

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Feast Day of St. James the Greater

2 comments July 25th, 2013 Headsman

It’s a big day today in the Galician city of Santiago de Compostela, because the twenty-fifth of July is the feast of its patron and namesake* St. James the Great.

One of the original Apostles (literally, he and his brother John are the first two whom Jesus calls in the Gospels), James also had the distinction of apparently being the first Apostle to die for Christ.** His execution at the hands of Herod Agrippa† is reported in Acts 12:2;‡ it’s the only apostolic execution in the New Testament.

This, of course, occurred on the southeastern fringe of the Mediterranean, so it’s a wonder that James’s bones came to repose at a Spanish city literally situated on Finisterre, the far western edge of the world as far as Europeans saw it. The Lord works in mysterious ways.

It’s certainly plausible — though impossible to substantiate — that James evangelized in Spain prior to his execution. The whole Mediterranean was a Roman lake. More towards the outlandish is the patriotic story (pdf) that James’s relics were miraculously discovered there in 813 at the moment when Muslim expansion into Iberia gave the hard-pressed Christian kingdoms the greatest possible need for a morale boost.§

James became for those souls Saint James Matamoros, Moor-slayer, and started turning the tide of fictional battles and blessing his own very real chivalric order.


Saint James gets his Moor-slaying on.

“A knight of Christ’s squadrons,” Cervantes wrote. “St. James the moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had, and that now the heavens have … this great knight with the vermilion cross has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”

James’s martial prowess is entirely posthumous: when the Son of God recruits him, he’s a humble piscator at labor mending his nets (there are some less-bellicose present-day churches going under the name “Saint James the Fisherman”). Gibbon could not but marvel at the “stupendous metamorphosis [that] was performed in the ninth century, when from a peaceful fisherman of the Lake of Gennesareth, the apostle James was transformed into a valorous knight, who charged at the head of Spanish chivalry in battles against the Moors. The gravest historians have celebrated his exploits; the miraculous shrine of Compostella displayed his power; and the sword of a military order, assisted by the terrors of the inquisition, was sufficient to remove every objection of profane criticism.”

But mythmaking exercises a historicity all its own, and the James legends offered a rallying-point for Spain’s Christians. He stands to this day the patron of Spain as well as a number of places colonized by Spain.

Pilgrims have ever since that stupendous metamorphosis of the 9th century made the journey to the apostle’s purported resting-place; this Way of St. James, actually comprising several different possible routes covering hundreds of kilometers on foot, has in recent years emerged as a major tourist draw. The Way terminates, of course, at Santiago de Compostela and the enormous cathedral there where repose James’s relics.

Saint James’s Day, 25 July, is its celebratory culmination.

James so overawes July 25 on the liturgical calendar that it’s a mere footnote to add that this same day also pays homage to Saint Christopher, a historically dubious Christian martyr from the third or early fourth century Roman Empire.

Christopher is rather nifty, because he’s sometimes depicted in iconography as cynocephalic — that is, having the head of a dog. At least the rest of him is human, unlike Saint Guinefort the Greyhound. (No lie. It’s a doggie saint, albeit of the distinctly unofficial variety. To stamp out folk veneration, an incensed preacherhad the dead dog disinterred, and the sacred wood [where it received offerings] cut down and burnt, along with the remains of the dog.”)


(Via)

* The name “Santiago” derives from our saint’s name in Latin, Sanctu Iacobu. This is also the source, and James the intended honorary, for other places on the map named Santiago, such as Santiago, Chile.

** Assuming you don’t count Judas Iscariot, of course.

† Herod Agrippa is not to be confused with his grandfather Herod the Great — the Biblical Massacre of the Innocents guy — nor with his uncle Herod Antipas — the guy who punted Jesus’s prosecution back to Pontius Pilate. Three different Herods; three different New Testament heavies.

‡ James’s death in Acts 12 is followed immediately by Saint Peter staging a supernatural jailbreak out of the same prison. The latter goes on to evangelize for another 20-odd years.

§ The holy remains reached that resting point, goes the legend, only by perilously navigating a path of dragons, pagans, and wagons.

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1844: The Bandiera brothers

Add comment July 25th, 2011 Headsman

On this date* in 1844, the Italian nationalists Attilio and Emilio Bandiera were shot with seven companions at Cosenza, Italy.

The Bandieras (English Wikipedia page | Italian) were Venetian officers in the Austrian navy — sons, indeed, of an admiral in that service.

Having been caught out in a mutinous agitation, the patriotic lads had been obliged to flee to Corfu (then under British administration)

But whispers soon reached them of a nascent rising in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and they took a small party to the toe of the Italian boot looking to get in on the glory.

They didn’t find the rumored revolutionaries — just martyrdom.

Reprieves preserved eight of the seventeen death-sentenced for the escapade; shot along with the renowned national martyrs together crying “Viva l’Italia!” were Nicola Riccioti, Domenico Moro, Anarcharsis Narde, Giovanni Verenui, Giacomo Rocca, Francesco Berti, and Domenico Lapatelli. (London Times, Aug. 12, 1844)

Venice visitors can pay their respects to the two at the Church of San Giovanni e Paolo, where they’re buried.

* There are some citations for July 23 out there, but the numerical bulk of the sources, and those closest to the event itself, clearly prefer July 25. e.g., the London Times of Aug. 12, 1844 cites the Journal of the Two Sicilies in reporting July 25; as noted by Mazzini and Marx, then-exiled Italian risorgimento figure Giuseppe Mazzini, who corresponded ineffectually with the martyrs, published a poem for this anniversary date in the July 25, 1846 edition of the Northern Star:

And in distant years the story
Still shall our children tell
Of those who sleep in glory
At Cosenza where they fell.

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1570: Ivan Viskovaty among hundreds on Red Square during the Oprichnina

4 comments July 25th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1570, Russian tsar Ivan IV GroznyIvan the Terrible — carried out one of his most infamous and horrible atrocities with hundreds executed on Red Square.

Ivan the Terrible, by Viktor Vasnetsov. (Cropped image; click for the full painting.)

We find ourselves in 1570 almost a quarter-century into the reign of this complicated, frightening figure. It is the oprichnina, the bloodiest spell of Ivan’s authority: years of torture, purges, and political violence vividly symbolized by the tsar’s black-clad personal Gestapo, the oprichniki.

“Children of darkness,” the exiled noble Kurbsky called these dreadful Praetorians. “Hundreds and thousands of times worse than hangmen.”

A dangerous time to draw breath, but a particularly dangerous time for any boyar, men of the feudal nobility whom Ivan set his iron hand to mastering. This, after all, was the historical task of monarchs at this time, and it was everywhere accomplished with bloodshed.

For Ivan, having come of age an orphan at the mercy of rival boyars, it was a vengeful personal obsession.

Already stung by the defection — and subsequent nasty correspondence — of one such noble, Andrei Kurbsky, Ivan was downright paranoid about disloyalty during the long-running Livonian War against Muscovy’s western neighbors, Poland, Lithuania and Sweden.

Ivan became ever readier to equate dissent with treason and to ascribe his military reverses to conspiracies on the part of his aristocratic commanders, rather than to the shortcomings of his war-machine in general. A vicious circle thus emerged – of military failures; suspected treachery; the suspects’ fear of condemnation and liquidation, and flight abroad.*


The innocent have nothing to fear!

Taking it into his head that the ancient, rival city of Novgorod — one of the cradles of Russian civilization — was scheming to deliver itself to the newly-formed Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Ivan led an army there that in early 1570 massacred thousands of Novgorodians.**

He wasn’t done yet.

Returning to Moscow with his blood up, Ivan subjected his numerous Novgorodian prisoners to a savage regimen meant to uncover the extent of their nefarious doings. And it wasn’t long before the locals (who were, after all, just as suspect in Ivan’s eyes) got swept up in it, too. Politically-motivated magistrates with torture-induced confessions and denunciations did the dreadful things they always do.

This date in 1570 turned out to be the affair’s crowning carnival of barbarism.

“The Russian capital had seen many horrors in its time,” wrote Soviet-era historian A.A. Zimin (cited in this biography of Ivan IV). “But what happened in Moscow on 25 July, in all its cruelty and sadistic refinement, outdid all that had gone before and can perhaps be explained only by the cruel temperament and the sick imagination of Ivan the Terrible.”

Ivan Viskovaty (English Wikipedia link | French) had been one of Russia’s leading men on foreign affairs for a generation, as well as a longstanding ally of the tsar.

Nevertheless, he would be the first and most prominent victim on Red Square this date. Viskovaty’s rival Andrei Shchelkalov, who succeeded Viskovaty as the foreign affairs minister, neatly stitched up the senior diplomat for being in on the Novgorod “plot” as well as more exotic schemes to hand over southern cities to Turkey and the Khanate.

Historian Nikolai Karamzin related the scene (quoted here):

On July 25, in the middle of the market-place, eighteen scaffolds were erected, a number of instruments of torture were fixed in position, a large stack of wood was lighted, and over it an enormous cauldron of water was placed. Seeing these terrible preparations, the people hurried away and hid themselves wherever they could, abandoning their opened shops, their goods and their money. Soon the place was void but for the band of opritchniks gathered round the gibbets, and the blazing fire. Then was heard the sound of drums: the Tsar appeared on horseback, accompanied by his dutiful son, the boyards, some princes, and quite a legion of hangmen. Behind these came some hundreds of the condemned, many like spectres; others torn, bleeding, and so feeble they scarce could walk. Ivan halted near the scaffolds and looked around, then at once commanded the opritchniks to find where the people were and drag them into the light of day. In his impatience he even himself ran about here and there, calling the Muscovites to come forward and see the spectacle he had prepared for them, promising all who came safety and pardon. The inhabitants, fearing to disobey, crept out of their hiding-place, and, trembling with fright, stood round the scaffold. Some having climbed on to the walls, and even showing themselves on the roofs, Ivan shouted: “People, ye are about to witness executions and a massacre, but these are traitors whom I thus punish. Answer me: Is this just?” And on all sides the people shouted approval. “Long live our glorious King! Down with traitors! Goiesi, Goida!”

Ivan separated 180 of the prisoners from the crowd and pardoned them. Then the first Clerk of the Council unrolled a scroll and called upon the condemned to answer. The first to be brought before him was Viskovati, and to him he read out: “Ivan Mikhailovich, formerly a Counsellor of State, thou hast been found faithless to his Imperial Highness. Thou has written to the King Sigismund offering him Novgorod; there thy first crime!” He paused to strike Viskovati on the head, then continued reading: “And this thy second crime, not less heinous than thy first, O ungrateful and perfidious one! Thou hast written to the Sultan of Turkey, that he may take Astrakhan and Kazan,” whereupon he struck the condemned wretch twice, and continued: “Also thou hast called upon the Khan of the Krim Tartars to enter and devastate Russia:† this thy third crime.” Viskovati called God to witness that he was innocent, that he had always served faithfully his Tsar and his country: “My earthly judges will not recognize the truth; but the Heavenly Judge knows my innocence! Thou also, O Prince, thou wilt recognise it before that tribunal on high!” Here the executioners interrupted, gagging him. He was then suspended, head downwards, his clothes torn off, and, Maluta Skutarov, the first to dismount from his horse and lead the attack, cut off an ear, then, little by little, his body was hacked to pieces.

The next victim was the treasurer, Funikov-Kartsef, a friend of Viskovati, accused with him of the same treason, and as unjustly. He in his turn said to Ivan, “I pray God will give thee in eternity a fitting reward for thy actions here!” He was drenched with boiling and cold water alternately, until he expired after enduring the most horrible torments. Then others were hanged, strangled, tortured, cut to pieces, killed slowly, quickly, by whatever means fancy suggested. Ivan himself took a part, stabbing and slaying without dismounting from his horse. In four hours two hundred and been put to death, and then, the carnage over, the hangmen, their clothes covered with blood, and their gory, steaming knives in their hands, surrounded the Tsar and shouted huzzah. “Goida! Goida! Long live the Tsar! Ivan for ever! Goida! Goida!” and so shouting they went round the market-place that Ivan might examine the mutilated remains, the piled-up corpses, the actual evidences of the slaughter. Enough of bloodshed for the one day? Not a bit of it. Ivan, satiated for the moment with the slaughter, would gloat over the grief of the survivors. Wishing to see the unhapy wives of Funikov-Kartsef and of Viskovati, he forced a way into their apartments and made merry over their grief! The wife of Funikov-Kartsef he put to the torture, that he might have from her whatever treasures she possessed. Equally he wished to torture her fifteen-year-old daughter, who was groaning and lamenting at their ill fortune, but contented himself with handing her over to the by no means tender mercies of the Tsarevich Ivan. Taken afterwards to a convent, these unhappy beings shortly died of grief — it is said.

Thanks to this sort of wholesale purging, Ivan the Terrible became in the 20th century something of an allegorical shorthand for Joseph Stalin, whose own reign of terror was a touchier subject for direct commentary. By that same token, and capturing the multifaceted meaning of the word Grozny, (both awful and awe-inspiring) Soviet patriotic mythology co-opted Ivan and his allegedly farsighted cruelty as a state- and nation-builder.

Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible — a planned trilogy of films of which only two were completed, due to Stalin’s distaste for his greatest director’s interpretation — captures a view of Ivan IV Grozny from the shadow of wartime Stalinist Russia. (The two extant films can be seen in their entirety on YouTube, and are well worth the watching.)

The more conventional take is that, especially by his later years, the guy’s tyrannical paranoia had metastasized enough to send him plum off his rocker. In 1581, that favorite son who had accompanied Tsar Ivan to Novgorod, and to Red Square on this date, piqued his father’s rage during an argument — and in a fury, Ivan struck him dead.


Detail view (click for the full, gorgeous canvas) of Ilya Repin‘s emotional painting of Ivan the moment after he has mortally wounded his son. Incited to his own act of lunacy by the tsar’s riveting madman expression, iconographer and Old Believer Abram Balashov slashed these faces with a knife (image) in the Tretyakov Gallery in 1913.

The capable young heir’s senseless death effectively spelled the end for Russia’s Rurikid Dynasty descended from the half-mythical Norse founder of Rus’, Rurik. That argument from order and progress in favor of Ivan’s ferocity inconveniently runs up against the fact that what he actually bequeathed to the next generations of Russians was the rudderless, war-torn Time of Troubles, when rival claimants struggled for the throne.

Ivan IV is sure to remain a controversial, compelling figure for many a year to come. Released just a few months ago as of this writing, and in a time when Ivan comparisons are coming back into vogue for the ominous contemporary Russian state, Pavel Lungin’s Tsar (review) mounts a gory critique of its subject.

* Jonathan Shepard, book review in The Historical Journal, vol. 25, no. 2 (June 1982).

** Novgorod by 1570 was not as important as it had once been, but Ivan’s sack massively depopulated the city, essentially destroying its remaining strength as an independent commercial center.

† The allied Ottoman Turks and Crimean Khanate did in fact devastate Russia (and pillage Moscow) the very next year.

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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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1794: Andre Chenier, poet

5 comments July 25th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1794, proto-Romantic poet Andre Chenier went to the guillotine the unfortunate victim of his father’s love.

In the operatic version of this Istanbul-born poet‘s life story, Chenier is accused by a rival in love, convicted, and guillotined the next day together with his beloved Maddalena, who effects a Sydney Carton-like swap into the lot of the condemned in order to share his fate.

Chenier’s real end was both more mundane, and far more tragic.

A revolutionary of the constitutional monarchist variety and an open opponent of the Jacobins bold enough to compose an ode to Marat’s murderess, Chenier had spent a year staying out of sight when the police picked him up almost accidentally.

Prisoners suffocating in the Paris jails were suspended horribly between life and death, but the anonymity of this living tomb offered — as with Tom Paine — a measure of occasional safety.

When Chenier’s father blunderingly appealing to the authorities for his son, he accidentally stripped away that anonymity. Chenier had been under lock and key for three-plus months — writing, the whole time, in minuscule letters on scraps of paper he arranged to have smuggled out to his father — but once reminded of the writer’s existence, the authorities promptly had it snuffed out. (A friend and fellow poet, Jean-Antoine Roucher, shared his tumbril.)

Chenier’s prison verses are among the most affecting of his 32 years — like the acidic Iambes blistering his persecutors, and the heartbreaking “La Jeune Captive”, in which he gives voice to the young fellow-prisoner who has smitten him, excerpted here:

Mon beau voyage encore est si loin de sa fin!
Je pars, et des ormeaux qui bordent le chemin
J’ai passé les premiers à peine.
Au banquet de la vie à peine commencé,
Un instant seulement mes lèvres ont pressé
La coupe en mes mains encor pleine.

Je ne suis qu’au printemps, je veux voir la moisson;
Et comme le soleil, de saison en saison,
Je veux achever mon année.
Brillante sur ma tige et l’honneur du jardin,
Je n’ai vu luire encor que les feux du matin:
Je veux achever ma journée.

Chenier was not broadly published or extremely well-known in his own lifetime; many critics think he was pinched out while still maturing. The poet himself told a friend in parting, “I leave nothing for posterity; and yet, (touching his forehead) I had something there.” In the backstory to one of the tales in Balzac’s La Comedie Humaine, a grocer who annoys one of Robespierre‘s associates is also among this day’s batch and arouses more notice than the man of letters:

Though Descoings died, he had the honour, at any rate, of going to the scaffold with Andre de Chenier. There, no doubt, grocery and poetry embraced for the first time in the flesh; for they have always had, and will always have, their private relations. Descoings’ execution made a far greater sensation than Andre de Chenier’s. Thirty years elapsed before it was recognised that France had lost more by Chenier’s death than by that of Descoings.

Robespierre’s sentence had this good result — until 1830 grocers were still afraid of meddling in politics.

The salutary effect upon grocers has long faded, but Chenier’s reputation has steadily ripened like wine since his demise. And the title part of the late-19th century opera Andrea Chenier — however scant its resemblance to the man who inspired it — is one of the most gorgeous tenor roles in opera.

Part of the Themed Set: Thermidor.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Artists,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,France,Guillotine,History,Mass Executions,Public Executions,Revolutionaries,Treason

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