1917: Gasim, by Lawrence of Arabia

3 comments July 5th, 2010 Headsman

“With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.”

-Alec Guinness as Prince Faisal in Lawrence of Arabia

This date in 1917 was the eve of the Battle of Aqaba, wherein a force of Arabs with famous British officer T.E. Lawrence emerged from the desert to surprise and capture the Ottoman Red Sea port today located in Jordan.*

And that makes this, in the cinematic masterpiece Lawrence of Arabia, the date on which the titular character kept the peace within his fragile coalition by personally executing a malefactor to prevent a tribal blood feud.

The victim, Gasim, is a real figure described in the real T.E. Lawrence’s memoirs

a gap-toothed, grumbling fellow, skrimshank in all our marches, bad-tempered, suspicious, brutal, a man whose engagement I regretted, and of whom I had promised to rid myself as soon as we reached a discharging-place.

Gasim is most famous as the beneficiary of the movie scene in which Lawrence boldly turns back into the desert to rescue this worthless retainer when Gasim’s camel is found riderless in the caravan. This, too, is based on an actual incident in Lawrence’s memoir, albeit heavily dramatized on celluloid.

In the film, Lawrence’s godlike power to give Gasim life is soon mirrored by the godlike power to deprive it.

Effectively exploiting dramatic license, Lawrence of Arabia portrays the Englishman surveying the scene of the coming triumph when a disturbance breaks out in his camp. Hastening thither, he discovers clan lining up against clan over the destructive right of blood vengeance because of a murder in the camp — a murder committed by the man he has saved.

To forestall a “tribal bloodbath” on the very eve of victory, Lawrence himself volunteers to execute the culprit. Having once risked everything to save Gasim, Lawrence sacrifices him ruthlessly when the occasion demands.** This act underscores the chameleon-like other-ness of the character, one of the film’s principal leitmotifs: “I have no tribe, and no one is offended!”

Though the real Lawrence did no such thing to the real Gasim, this astonishing scene is also related in the memoirs — just at an earlier point, and with a different, less dramatically integral character.

My followers had been quarrelling all day; and while I was lying near the rocks a shot was fired. I paid no attention; for there were hares and birds in the valley; but a little later Suleiman roused me and made me follow him across the valley to an opposite bay in the rocks, where one of the Ageyl, a Boreida man, was lying stone dead with a bullet through his temples. The shot must have been fired from close by; because the skin was burnt about one wound. The remaining Ageyl were running frantically about; and when I asked what it was Ali, their head man, said that Hamed the Moor had done the murder. I suspected Suleiman, because of the feud between the Atban and Ageyl which had burned up in Yenbo and Wejh; but Ali assured me that Suleiman had been with him three hundred yards further up the valley gathering sticks when the shot was fired. I sent all out to search for Hamed, and crawled back to the baggage, feeling that it need not have happened this day of all days when I was in pain.

As I lay there I heard a rustle, and opened my eyes slowly upon Hamed’s back as he stooped over his saddle-bags, which lay just beyond my rock. I covered him with a pistol and then spoke. He had put down his rifle to lift the gear; and was at my mercy till the others came. We held a court at once; and after a while Hamed confessed that, he and Salem having had words, he had seen red and shot him suddenly. Our inquiry ended. The Ageyl, as relatives of the dead man, demanded blood for blood. The others supported them; and I tried vainly to talk the gentle Ali round. My head was aching with fever and I could not think; but hardly even in health, with all eloquence, could I have begged Hamed off; for Salem had been a friendly fellow and his sudden murder a wanton crime.

Then rose up the horror which would make civilized man shun justice like a plague if he had not the needy to serve him as hangmen for wages. There were other Moroccans in our army; and to let the Ageyl kill one in feud meant reprisals by which our unity would have been endangered. It must be a formal execution, and at last, desperately, I told Hamed that he must die for punishment, and laid the burden of his killing on myself. Perhaps they would count me not qualified for feud. At least no revenge could lie against my followers; for I was a stranger and kinless.

I made him enter a narrow gully of the spur, a dank twilight place overgrown with weeds. Its sandy bed had been pitted by trickles of water down the cliffs in the late rain. At the end it shrank to a crack a few inches wide. The walls were vertical. I stood in the entrance and gave him a few moments’ delay which he spent crying on the ground. Then I made him rise and shot him through the chest. He fell down on the weeds shrieking, with the blood coming out in spurts over his clothes, and jerked about till he rolled nearly to where I was. I fired again, but was shaking so that I only broke his wrist. He went on calling out, less loudly, now lying on his back with his feet towards me, and I leant forward and shot him for the last time in the thick of his neck under the jaw. His body shivered a little, and I called the Ageyl, who buried him in the gully where he was. Afterwards the wakeful night dragged over me, till, hours before dawn, I had the men up and made them load, in my longing to be set free of Wadi Kitan. They had to lift me into the saddle.

Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence almost palpably manifests the conflicting aspects of his character as he shoots Gasim to death — and he confirms the transformative effect of his first homicide in subsequent dialogue with Gen. Edmund Allenby.

Lawrence: I killed two people. One was … yesterday? He was just a boy and I led him into quicksand. The other was … well, before Aqaba. I had to execute him with my pistol, and there was something about it that I didn’t like.
Allenby: That’s to be expected.
Lawrence: No, something else.
Allenby: Well, then let it be a lesson.
Lawrence: No … something else.
Allenby: What then?
Lawrence: I enjoyed it.

* Actually, Aqaba is Jordan’s only port. This battle was not so epic as the film depicts.

** In a bit of complex foreshadowing, the cinematic Gasim has told Lawrence at the outset of the expedition that “Allah favors the compassionate.”

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Common Criminals,Cycle of Violence,Execution,Fictional,Jordan,Murder,No Formal Charge,Notable Participants,Ottoman Empire,Political Expedience,Public Executions,Shot,Soldiers,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions

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1600: Jean Livingston, Lady Waristoun

3 comments July 5th, 2009 Headsman

At 4 o’clock in the morning this day — as a favor to her powerful father to limit the public spectacle — Jean Livingston lost her head for arranging the murder of her husband just three days before.

Provoked by one beating too many, Lady Waristoun (or Lady Warriston) got a servant to murder him in his bed on the night of July 1.

Robert Weir blew town — he wouldn’t be apprehended until 1604, whereupon he suffered one of the very few instances of execution on the breaking-wheel to occur in the British Isles — but the Lady and her nurse Janet Murdo were “caught red-handed”, an actual juridical concept in Scottish law which means what it says on the tin.

They were condemned to death by burning, which dad’s pull was able to mitigate for his daughter (but not the nurse), so

scho wes tare to the Girth Crosse upon the 5 day of Julii, and her heid struk fra her bodie at the Cannagait fit; quha diet verie patiently. Her nurische wes brunt at the same tyme, at 4 houres in the morneing, the 5 of Julii.

In the exceedingly brief time — about a day and a half — between sentence and execution, Lady Waristoun was reported to have undergone a wonderous transformation. The not-uninterested report* of her confessor offers these mournful final words, a stark contrast to her defiant state just after condemnation.

The occasion of my coming here is to show that I am, and have been, a great sinner, and hath offended the Lord’s Majesty; especially, of the cruel murdering of mine own husband, which, albeit I did not with mine own hands, for I never laid mine hands upon him all the time that he was murdering, yet I was the deviser of it, and so the committer. But my God hath been always merciful to me, and hath given me repentance for my sins; and I hope for mercy and grace at his Majesty’s hands, for his dear son Jesus Christ’s sake. And the Lord hath brought me hither to be an example to you, that you may not fall into the like sin as I have done. And I pray God, for his mercy, to keep all his faithful people from falling into the like inconvenient as I have done! And therefore I desire you all to pray to God for me, that he would be merciful to me!

Then, she had her head lopped off by the maiden while at the same hour Janet Murdo, much less wept for, was burnt alive at Castlehill.

This sudden and sensational fall of an elite, and allegedly beautiful, woman obviously made quite a splash, with printed accounts feeding almost inevitably into the Scots ballad tradition.

My mother was an ill woman,
In fifteen years she married me ;
I hadna wit to guide a man,
Alas! ill counsel guided me.

O Warriston, O Warriston,
I wish that ye may sink for sin;
I was but bare fifteen years auld,
When first I enter’d your yates within.

I hadna been a month married,
Till my gude Lord went to the sea;
I bare a bairn ere he came hame,
And set it on the nourice knee.

But it fell ance upon a day,
That my gude lord return’d from sea;
Then I did dress in the best array,
As blythe as ony bird on tree.

I took my young son in my arms,
Likewise my nourice me forebye;
And I went down to yon shore side,
My gude lord’s vessel I might spy.

My lord he stood upon the deck,
I wyte he hail’d me courteouslie;
“Ye are thrice welcome, my lady gay,
Wha’se aught that bairn on your knee?”

She turn’d her right and round about,
Says, “Why take ye sic dreads o’ me?
Alas! I was too young married,
To love another man but thee.”

“Now hold your tongue, my lady gay,
Nae mair falsehoods ye’ll tell to me;
This bonny bairn is not mine,
You’ve loved another while I was on sea.”

In discontent then hame she went,
And aye the tear did blin’ her e’e;
Says, “Of this wretch I’ll be revenged,
For these harsh words he’s said to me.”

She’s counsell’d wi’ her father’s steward,
What way she cou’d revenged be;
Bad was the counsel then he gave, —
It was to gar her gude lord dee.

The nourice took the deed in hand,
I wat she was well paid her fee;
She kiest the knot, and the loop she ran,
Which soon did gar this young lord dee.

His brother lay in a room hard by,
Alas! that night he slept too soun’;
But then he waken’d wi’ a cry,
I fear my brother’s putten down.

O get me coal and candle-light,
And get me some gude companie;
But before the light was brought,
Warriston he was gart dee.

They’ve ta’en the lady and fause nouriee,
In prison strang they hae them boun’;
The nouriee she was hard o’ heart,
But the bonny lady fell in swoon.

In it came her brother dear,
And aye a sorry man was he;
“I wou’d gie a’ the lands I heir,
O bonny Jean, .to borrow thee.”

“O borrow me, brother, borrow me–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
For I gart kill my ain gude lord,
And life is nae pleasure to me.”

In it came her mother dear,
I wyte a sorry woman was she;
“I wou’d gie my white monie and gowd,
O bonny Jean, to borrow thee.”

“Borrow me, mother, borrow me,–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
For I gart kill my ain gude lord,
And life’s now nae pleasure to me.”

Then in it came her father dear,
I wyte a sorry man was he;
Says, “Ohon! alas! my bonny Jean,
If I had you at hame wi’ me.

“Seven daughters I ha’e left at hame,
As fair women as fair can be;
But I would gie them ane by ane,
O bonny Jean, to borrow thee.”

“O borrow me, father, borrow me,–
O borrow’d shall I never be;
I that is worthy o’ the death,
It is but right that I shou’d dee.”

Than out it speaks the king himsell,
And aye as he steps in the fleer,
Says, “I grant you your life, lady,
Because you are of tender year.”

“A boon, a boon, my liege the king,
The boon I ask, ye’ll grant to me.”
“Ask on, ask on, my bonny Jean,
Whate’er ye ask, it’s granted be.”

Cause take me out at night, at night,
Lat not the sun upon me shine;
And take me to yon heading hill,
Strike aff this dowie head o’ mine.

Ye’ll take me out at night, at night,
When there are nane to gaze and see;
And ha’e me to yon heading hill,
And ye’ll gar head me speedilie.

They’ve ta’en her out at nine at night,
Loot not the sun upon her shine;
And had her to yon heading hill,
And headed her baith neat and fine.

Then out it speaks the king himsell,
I wyte a sorry man was he;
“I’ve travell’d east, I’ve travell’d west,
And sailed far beyond the sea,
But I never saw a woman’s face
I was sae sorry to see dee.

“But Warriston was sair to blame,
For slighting o’ his lady so;
He had the wyte o’ his ain death,
And his bonny lady’s overthrow.”

* Snappily titled, “A Worthy and Notable Memorial of the Great Work of Mercy which God wrought in the Conversion of Jean Livingstone Lady Warristoun, who was apprehended for the Vile and Horrible Murder of her own Husband, John Kincaid, committed on Tuesday, July 1, 1600, for which she was execute on Saturday following; Containing an Account of her Obstinacy, Earnest Repentance, and her Turning to God; of the Odd Speeches she used during her Imprisonment; of her Great and Marvellous Constancy; and of her Behaviour and Manner of Death: Observed by One who was both a Seer and Hearer of what was spoken.”

Part of the Themed Set: The Ballad.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Burned,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Maiden,Murder,Public Executions,Scotland,Women

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1947: Ding Mocun, not as hot a lay in real life

Add comment July 5th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1947, Ding Mocun was shot for “conspiring with a foreign government to overthrow China” in Shanghai by the Kuomintang.

This former Communist turned right-wing radical may be most readily recognizable outside China as the real-life inspiration behind Ang Lee’s steamy 2007 art-house menace to undergarments Lust, Caution.

Based on a story by Eileen Chang (or Zhang Ailing), Lust, Caution fictionalizes Mocun’s real-life escape from an attempted assassination in 1939.

That incident was authored by Ding’s young plaything, who turned out to have a very serious side indeed. (Ding had her shot.)

While the attempt on the turncoat spy’s life really happened, there’s some dispute over whether Chang really had this particular woman strongly in mind over the twenty-plus years she composed her story. There’s more about the evolution of the fictional story here, but you’ll need Chinese skills to follow the links to Chang’s evolving text.

At any rate, Ding’s actual death would come by order of a more august character: Chiang Kai-shek.

Why so many people out to get him?

Despite his nationalist credentials, when Ding lost a party struggle in 1938, he found a gig with the collaborationist government of Japanese-occupied China running a nasty intelligence unit that made nationalists and Communists disappear. That’s the sort of resume anyone would be touching up come the mid-1940’s, and Ding went with a revision (not widely credited, though it has its advocates) that he was secretly passing information to the nationalist resistance all along. And as the nationalists and Communists turned on one another in the postwar power vacuum, it looked like his usefulness to the Kuomintang might get him off the hook after all.

It worked for a while, but Chiang — or so goes the story — caught a tabloid expose about Ding catching R&R at a lake when he’d used a medical pass to get out of prison, and impulsively ordered him shot.

Perhaps Ding’s status as official evildoer vis-a-vis a China whose messy birth many are old enough to remember helps account for the resonance of literary works that engage him as a human being. In a nonfiction vein, Konrad Lawson’s layered critique of the pro-Ding apologia linked above thoughtfully evokes the complexity of Ding’s era and the challenges it poses for historiography.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Japan,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Ripped from the Headlines,Shot,Treason

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