1986: Kevin Barlow and Brian Chambers, Dadah is Death

Add comment July 7th, 2020 Headsman

On this date in 1986, Malaysia hanged Australian nationals Brian Chambers and Kevin Barlow for trafficking heroin.

The two men were nabbed together at the Penang island airport with 179 grams of heroin in their packs. While Chambers was an experienced drug courier, Barlow was a rookie; reportedly, his visible nervousness in the airport gave the game away. (He had also refused out of revulsion to pack the product into his stomach or anus.)

Although the amount they carried far exceeded Malaysia’s then-brand-new 15-gram threshold for an automatic death sentence, “Westerners” so-called had never yet actually been hanged there. The two were initially sanguine about their situation, expecting a mixture of bribes and diplomatic logrolling to do the trick.

Over the 20 months between arrest and their July 1985 trial, they realized their true predicament.

According to Bruce Dover, who covered their trial for Australia’s Herald Sun, “They turned on each other. The parents and family members who Barlow and Chambers had early agreed to ‘keep out of it’ now watched on helplessly from the court gallery, as each man tried to implicate the other in a desperate gambit that at best would send one man to the gallows while the other walked free … [and] in their efforts to save themselves, each had condemned the other to die.” In Dover’s estimation, the very best they could have hoped to achieve was to have one man shoulder the blame to save the other.

International appeals from all the usual suspects — Australia Prime Minister Bob Hawke, the Pope, various human rights organizations, and even Margaret Thatcher (because Barlow was a British-born dual citizen) — failed to move the Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. If anything, the clamor only strengthened the domestic political imperative to advertise Malaysian resolve in a high-profile case against the special pleading of foreign busybodies.*

“Like many people of European descent, they [Barlow and Chambers] have assumed that a white skin was protection against local laws,” a Kuala Lumpur newspaper editorialized. “That is also the unspoken assumption among many in the foreign media who are now in this country. The two men should be hanged.”

They were.

A 1988 Australian television film about the Barlow and Chambers case, Dadah Is Death — “dadah” being the Malaysian word for drugs — is a star-studded affair, featuring Julie Christie on the marquee as Kevin Barlow’s mother in her fight to save her son, opposite appearances by then-little-known youngsters Hugo Weaving, Sarah Jessica Parker, and John Polson.

* A similar script played out in neighboring Singapore with a Dutch smuggler a few years later.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Drugs,Execution,Hanged,History,Malaysia,Milestones

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1591: Ralph Milner, Roger Dickenson, and Laurence Humphrey

Add comment July 7th, 2019 Alban Butler

(Thanks to the English Catholic Alban Butler for the guest post on three martyrs during Elizabethan England. This entry originally appeared in Butler’s hagiographical magnum opus Lives of the Saints which is in the public domain, although updated recent editions are also to be had from the usual booksellers. July 7 is the feast date for all three men described in this post; Dickenson and Milner were actually put to death on that date, while Humphrey’s execution date appears to be unrecorded. -ed.)

In this year [1591] there suffered at Winchester, on July 7, BB. Roger Dickenson and Ralph Milner, and on a date unknown Bd Laurence Humphrey.

Milner was a small farmer, or even a farm-labourer, and brought up a Protestant. Upon contrasting the lives led by his Protestant and Catholic neighbours, to the great disadvantage of the first, he put himself under instruction and was received into the Church; but on the very day of his first communion he was committed to prison for the change of religion. Here he was kept for a number of years, but his confinement was not strict and he was often released on parole, when he would obtain alms and spiritual ministrations for his fellow prisoners, and also use his knowledge of the country to facilitate the movements and work of missionary priests. In this way he made the acquaintance of Father [Thomas] Stanney, s.j., who afterwards wrote a memoir of him in Latin, and with the same priests assistance a secular priest, Mr Roger Dickenson, came to live in Winchester. He was a Lincoln man, who had made his studies at Rheims, and for several years he worked in the Winchester district, helped by Milner.

The first time Mr Dickenson was arrested his guards got so drunk that he was able to escape, but the second time, Milner being with him, they were both committed for trial: Dickenson for being a priest, Milner for “relieving” him. At the trial the judge, being somewhat pitiful for Blessed Ralph, who was old and had a wife and eight children looking to him, recommended him to make one visit as a matter of form to the Protestant parish church, and so secure his release. But, says [Richard] Challoner, Milner answered, “Would your lordship then advise me, for the perishable trifles of this world, or for a wife and children, to lose my God? No, my lord, I cannot approve or embrace a counsel so disagreeable to the maxims of the gospel.” As Father Stanney states that Milner was entirely illiterate, we must assume that this is a paraphrase of his reply. These two suffered together, one of the most moving couples in the whole gallery of English martyrs.

At the same assizes seven maiden gentlewomen were sentenced to death for allowing Bd Roger to celebrate Mass in their houses, but were immediately reprieved; whereupon they asked that they might die with their pastor, seeing that they undoubtedly shared his supposed guilt and should share also in his punishment: but they were returned to prison.

Laurence Humphrey was a young man of Protestant upbringing and good life who, having undertaken to dispute with Father Stanney (referred to above), was instead himself converted. Father Stanney in a brief memoir speaks very highly of the virtues of his neophyte and his energy in instructing the ignorant and relieving the needs of those in prison for their faith. But Humphrey being taken seriously ill, he was heard to say in delirium that “the queen was a whore and a heretic”; his words were reported to the authorities, and before he was well recovered he was committed to Winchester gaol. At his trial he confessed his religion, but denied memory of ever having spoken disrespectfully of the queen; he was nevertheless condemned, and hanged, drawn, and quartered in his twenty-first year.

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1907: Xu Xulin, anti-Manchu assassin

1 comment July 7th, 2018 Headsman

Chinese revolutionary Xu Xulin was executed on this date in 1907.

As a civil servant in Anhui Province, this militant (English Wikipedia entry | German | the far more detailed Chinese) had just one day before assassinated the provincial governor, En-ming, during the ceremonial graduation of a police academy. Xu himself was the academy’s superintendent.

He’d been hoping to touch off a revolution and his hopes, though not ill-founded, were disappointed in this moment. He was beheaded hours later and his heart carved out as an offering to his victim. Xu’s cousin, the feminist Qiu Jin, was executed the following week for the same disturbance.

Surprisingly, Xu’s murder of a Manchu official — the Mongolian peoples who ruled China’s domestic Han majority under the Qing dynasty — directly spurred a national response to his frankly stated ethnic grievances, as the Qing maneuvered (too late, as it would transpire) to implement reforms that could sustain their state through a revolutionary era.

Xu Xilin, during his interrogation, readily confessed that he had killed Enming simply because he was a Manchu … Xu Xilin professed no grudge against Enming personally, nor did he claim that the governor had been particularly hostile toward Han. Rather, Xu’s enmity was directed toward the Manchus in general:

The Manchus have enslaved us Han for nearly three hundred years. On the surface they seem to be implementing constitutionalism, but that’s only to ensnare people’s minds. In reality they are upholding the centralization of authority so as to enhance their own power. The Manchus’ presumption is that once there is constitutionalism, then revolution will be impossible … If constitutionalism means centralization, then the more constitutionalism there is, the faster we Han people will die … I have harbored anti-Manchu feelings for more than ten years. Only today have I achieved my goal. My intention was to murder Enming, then to kill Duanfang, Tieliang, and Liangbi, so as to avenge the Han people … You say that the governor was a good official, that he treated me very well. Granted. But since my aim is to oppose the Manchus, I cannot be concerned with whether a particular Manchu was a good or bad official. As for his treating me well, that was the private kindness of an individual person. My killing of the governor, on the other hand, expresses the universal principal of anti-Manchuism.

The murder of Enming caused tremendous unease among Manchu officials … Because it coincided with a series of revolutionary uprisings in Guangdong that Sun Yat-sen had launched in early May, the assassination was especially upsetting. According to British diplomats, “Everywhere throughout the country the Manchu officials are living closely guarded in their Yamens.” …

[The Empress] Cixi was particularly anxious about Xu Xilin’s anti-Manchuism. At an audience a month later with her foreign minister, Lu Haihuan (1840-1927), the empress dowager was reportedly still wrestling with Xu’s ghost. She insisted to Lu, “The bandit Xu Xilin claimed that there is prejudice between Manchus and Han, but really when we select provincial officials there is no prejudice whatsoever.” More to the point, she issued within five weeks of each other two edicts that were clearly prompted by Enming’s murder. The first, promulgated on 8 July, two days after the assassination, called once more upon her subjects to present proposals for reform, but this time her appeal went beyond the elite of top officials who were authorized to memorialize the throne to the much broader group of junior officials and scholar commoners, who were now permitted to have their ideas forwarded to her by either the Censorate or the provincial officials.

[The second edict, of 10 August] focused specifically on Manchu-Han relations. Cixi maintained, yet one more time, that the Qing dynasty throughout its long history had always treated Manchus and Han impartially, both as officials and as subjects. Nor had it, in recent appointments to the banner system [hereditary provincial military and administrative posts that were overwhelmingly Manchu], distinguished between Manchus and Han … she then called on all officials to offer suggestions on “how to totally eradicate the boundaries between Manchus and Han.”

-Edward J. M. Rhoads, Manchus and Han: Ethnic Relations and Political Power in Late Qing and Early Republican China, 1861-1928

Proposals from various officials ran the gamut, — encouraging intermarriage, abolishing legal privileges still enjoyed by Manchus, suppressing the Manchu language, and moving Manchu cultural practices towards the Han in everything from naming conventions to forms of address. Even Cixi’s Grand Council was shaken up to establish parity between Manchus and Han.

The chilling words of the dead assassin still echoing, the government moved on these proposals with surprising urgency. By the autumn,

the court issued two edicts, ten days apart, that resolved to drastically change, though not abolish, the Eight Banner system. The first edict, handed down on 27 September, ordered … that the provincial garrisons be disbanded over a ten-year period and their inhabitants be prepared to make their own living … The second edict, issued on 9 October, dealt with the customary and legal differences between Manchus and Han, such as the length of the mourning period and the commutation of punishments. It called on the Ministry of Rites together with the Commissioners for Revising and Codifying the Laws to draw up a set of ceremonies and penal codes that would apply uniformly to Manchus and Han, excepting only the imperial lineage.

These two edicts thus accepted many of the proposals advanced by the memorialists after Enming’s assassination …

Meanwhile, in response to the growing demands of the constitutionalist reformers … Cixi, in her own name, issued two other edicts that clarified the vague promise that she had made a year earlier to institute a constitutional regime. On 20 September 1907 she declared that her ultimate intention was to establish “a bicameral deliberative body.” As a preparatory step, she ordered the immediate creation of a Consultative Assembly, appointed the fourth-rank prince Pulun (1874-1926) and the elderly grand secretary Jia’nai as its co-presidents, and charged them, together with the Grand Council, to draw up a detailed plan for this new national assembly. A month later, on 19 October, she authorized the formation of provincial deliberative assemblies as well. Afterward, she sent Pulun to Japan to learn more about constitutional government at first hand.

Cixi died the following year. The Xinhai Revolution ended the Qing dynasty in 1911.

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2010: Wen Qiang, prey of Bo Xilai

Add comment July 7th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 2010, Chongqing politician Wen Qiang was executed for corruption — but the rival who felled him was on the brink of his own destruction.

Wen, the longtime Public Security Bureau chief in the southwestern city of Chongking, was a big dog to most. To Bo Xilai, Wen looked more like trophy game.

Son of an “immortal” Communist pol Bo Yibo, the aggressive and charismatic Politburo member Bo was then an ascending star on the national stage.

In 2007, Bo won the Communist Party’s appointment as party chief of Chongqing — effectively giving him control of the city. From this platform, Bo launched a high-profile crackdown on graft and organized crime rife in the 30 million-strong megacity.

During a campaign from roughly 2009 to Bo’s own fall in 2012, some 9,000 people were investigated for corruption, and nearly half of them jailed … or in Wen’s case, worse.

“Dare to fight against the devil, never compromise with the gangs”: Bo’s act resonated powerfully in a country fractured by economic development and widely afflicted by beak-wetting. But Bo’s political angle was not merely playing to the peanut gallery: it was also a factional power play, implicitly critical of his similarly powerful predecessor Wang Yang for having tolerated the mobsters’ rise.

And Wen Qiang, a holdover from even before the Wang years, was Bo’s highest-ranking prey.

Xinhua reported that he was found guilty of soliciting USD $1.7 million worth of bribes, of protecting criminals like his sister-in-law who happened to be the “godmother” of crime in Chongqing, and even of raping a university student. Media circulated salacious stories of buried sacks of cash, mistresses collected and discarded, and secret luxury villas.

In these years, Bo went from victory to vctory and destroying Wen was just another stepping-stone towards the top leadership circles in the People’s Republic.

But merely 16 months after Wen faced his executioner, Bo’s own star also dramatically fell to earth.

In November 2011, British businessman and Bo associate Neil Haywood was found suspiciously poisoned in his Chongqing hotel. Practically overnight, Bo Xilai found himself the target instead of the author of the investigation — politically stricken as all his own chickens came home to roost.

An incredible sequence of events ensued: Bo’s chief of police (and Wen’s own Javert) Wang Lijun bizarrely fled to the (temporary) sanctuary of an American consulate the following February, days after Bo demoted him — apparently citing fear that Bo might have him, too, murdered.

Within weeks, Bo had been sacked as Chongqing party boss and dismissed from the Politburo while his wife Gu Kailai arrested for Neil Heywood’s murder. Wang was arrested when he left the American consulate. Politically impotent now, Bo had months to wait before his own divisive case finally came to a courtroom resolution in 2013. As of this writing, Wang and Bo and Gu are all serving long prison sentences. (Gu’s was a suspended death sentence recently commuted to life imprisonment.)

Through Bo’s precipitous fall, Bo’s own patron Zhou Yongkang was also ruined, forced out of national leadership, and eventually sent to prison on corruption charges of his own.

Bo’s disgrace has brought a re-examination of his rough rule in Chongqing — though many targets of his bygone anti-corruption drive still languish in prison, vainly protesting their innocence.

Though he is no longer around to protest on his own behalf, and there appears to be little sentiment that he was clear of corruption in an absolute sense, Wen has also been re-evaluated in light of those events — including indications that the most incendiary allegations against him might have been ginned up for show:

police buried the bundles of cash, carefully wrapped in waterproof paper, in the morning and then dug them up in front of the cameras that afternoon.

Another key piece of evidence used to convict Wen — two luxury villas worth more than 30 million yuan that Wen allegedly owned — has also been questioned.

A former senior police officer in Chongqing who was close to Wen insisted he was the real owner of the villas, where Wen allegedly kept mistresses and which were later turned into destinations for “anti-graft education” tours.

The (possibly apocryphal) story has it than in a prison meeting, the doomed Wen prophesied Danton-like to his persecutor Wang, “You’ll meet the same fate as me.”

There are affecting interviews with Wen’s wife and son, and even a reporter’s conversation with Wen during the very last hours of his life, all here.

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1911: Daniel “Nealy” Duncan, posthumous pardon candidate

2 comments July 7th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1911, still professing his innocence, Daniel “Nealy” Duncan hanged in the county jail at Charleston, South Carolina.

“Short, thick set and very black,”* Duncan was, at length, arrested for the murder of a King Street tailor named Max Lubelsky. Poor Mr. Lubelsky had been discovered on June 21, 1910 as he lay dying of a fractured skull — the bloody cudgel rudely enhanced with a nail abandoned beside its victim was the only clue, besides someone in the neighborhood who thought they noticed “a negro, dressed in a blue suit, wearing a derby hat”** who left the store around the time of the midday attack. The attacker’s purpose was robbery.

With very little to go on, police “rounded up a number of characters” and, the papers forthrightly reported, gave these black men “the ‘third degree'”: that is, tortured them.

Granting that we find ourselves at this moment at the nadir of race relations in the Jim Crow south, these officers conceived themselves acting in good faith, torture and all. They were not utterly indiscriminate; several of the beaten-up suspects were able to produce an alibi and were duly released with their newly acquired welts. But in the absence of a witness (or knuckle-assisted self-incrimination) they had little to work with.

And so the assailant remained a mystery.

There matters still stood on July 8 when the widow Mrs. Lubelsky came racing out of her late husband’s store with blood streaming down her own face, crying murder at the top of her lungs.

To take up the narration reported in the next day’s edition of The State,

Just then a negro emerged and two men, Isaac Goodman and Moses Needle, who were passing, gave chase of the negro. He was caught a few blocks distant and promptly turned over to Police Officer Stanley and Detective Levy, who had also taken up the chase. Protesting his innocence and declaring that another negro had attempted to kill the woman, Daniels was taken to the station house amidst great excitement and the patrol wagon did not roll off any too soon from the excited neighborhood …

The State has given us an incriminating narration, but if we begin from our suspect’s denial it is not too difficult to conceive the scene otherwise — a bystander swept into the chaos as the panicked Mrs. Lubelsky barges out of her shop, the sudden attention of a crowd which the newsman gives us to understand was wound up enough for a lynching. You’d run, too.

The traumatized Mrs. Lubelsky insisted that it was Duncan who attacked her; this is one of the few pieces of palpable evidence we have in the case, though eyewitness error is a frequent factor in wrongful convictions. She would have glimpsed her assailant for a moment, dashed out of the store in a panic, then a fleeing man was chased down and hauled back to her — perfect cues for her memory to fix this man with all sincerity as the picture of her assailant.

And whatever the cliche about criminals returning to the scenes of their crimes, few are bold enough to repeat a literally identical attack days apart. It was basically just by analogy that the July 8 assault was held to place Duncan at the scene of the murder 17 days before; the vague description of the blue-suited man who might or might not have had anything to do with the murder could have fit Duncan or numerous other people. A local black man said that Duncan had been in the area on the day Max Lubelsky was killed, which would scarcely rise to the level of circumstantial even were one to discount the possible confirmation bias (or police pressure) introduced by Duncan’s arrest.

One would like to think (forlorn hope!) that a jury in 2015 would demand better than this to stretch a man’s neck … but in Charleston in 1910, it was enough to surpass reasonable doubt.†


The State, Oct. 8, 1910.

Duncan’s insistence on innocence was passed down in his own family and in the Mother Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church whose congregation the hanged man once belonged to. In these halls, he is widely understood to have been an innocent man and this conclusion has not wanted for latter-day advocates.‡

The case surfaced to the broader public recently, with a push around the centennial of Duncan’s hanging to have him posthumously exonerated. The measure failed on a 3-3 vote in 19112011.

Left: Dead Weight, a historical novel based on the Duncan case; right: Charleston’s Trial, a nonfiction account.

Duncan was the last person hanged in Charleston, but not the last in South Carolina; there was a double execution in December of 1911 before the Palmetto state adopted electrocution beginning in 1912.

* The State (Columbia, S.C.), June 11, 1911.

** The State, June 22, 1911.

† The supernaturally inclined took notice from the August 1911 hurricane that devastated Charleston as a portend of Duncan’s innocence — and nicknamed it “the Duncan storm”.

‡ 2010-2011 media accounts indicated that the victim’s descendants did not share such confidence in Duncan’s innocence.

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1962: Talduwe Somarama, Ceylon assassin

2 comments July 7th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1962, the Buddhist monk — turned Christian convert in detention — Talduwe Somarama was hanged for assassinating Ceylon Prime Minister S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike. (Ceylon became Sri Lanka in 1972.)

Somarama was a 44-year-old ayurvedic medicine practitioner when he was tapped for the job by a powerful Buddhist named Mapitigana Buddharakkitha, high priest of the Kelaniya temple. The latter had played kingmaker in Bandaranaike’s 1956 election — and had perhaps two interlocking grievances against Bandaranaike:

  1. Buddharakkitha had been balked by the government of lucrative trade concessions he anticipated as the quid for his quo; and,
  2. Buddharakkitha was closely linked to the movement of partisan Sinhalese Buddhist nationalists who in Ceylon’s early years systematically discriminated against the island’s ethnic Tamils — and were angered at Bandaranaike’s halting moves to reach an accommodation.*

Exploiting the prerogatives of clergy, Somarama obtained a September 25, 1959, meeting un-screened by security for one of the Prime Minister’s public-audience days, a revolver secreted in his saffron robes. When Bandaranaike knelt ceremonially to the monk, Somarama shot him in the stomach.

The wound was mortal, but the Prime Minister lingered on all that night — long enough even to give a televised address from his hospital bed asking his countrymen to “show compassion to” his assassin “and not try to wreak vengeance on him.”* Only months before the murder, ethnic riots had devastated minority Tamil communities, and another pogrom might have been averted on this occasion only the quick thinking of a government official to promulgate immediate word that the assassin was not Tamil.

Ironically Buddharakkitha was so far above suspicion at that he was solicited for a broadcast eulogy of his victim. One can only imagine his relish at the performance — but it was not to last. Buddharakkitha was tried as a conspirator for orchestrating Somarama’s deed, dodged a prospective death sentence, and died in 1967 serving a prison sentence at hard labor.


Talduwe Somara on the steps of the courthouse …


… and Buddharakkitha likewise.

Bandaranaike’s daughter Sirimavo succeeded him as Prime Minister in 1960, becoming the world’s first elected female head of government. A second daughter, Chandrika, and a son, Anura, have also been prominent Sri Lanka politicians.

This three-part series unpacks some of the primary sources on the murder and speculates as to cui bono: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

* Buddharakkitha, also noted for exploring paths to enlightenment with various Sinhalese elites’ wives, was the high priest of the Kelaniya temple — which is the titular temple in the 1953 Sinhalese nationalist tract The Revolt in the Temple, “a blunt statement that the Tamils are a threat to [the Sinhalese] historic mission.” Its author was Don Charles Wijewardena, who had been a patron of Bandaranaike as a young monk; the (still-extant) Wijewardena dynasty had likewise associated itself with the Kelaniya temple itself, the political and the devotional mutually reinforcing one another.

The Sinhala-Tamil conflict stoked in these years has progressed in the decades since to ever-bloodier consequences.

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1584: Anna Peihelsteinin, beheaded by Franz Schmidt

Add comment July 7th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1584, Nuremberg executioner Franz Schmidt beheaded Anna Peihelsteinin (Peyelstainin) for “lewdness and harlotry.” (Despite the image above, Schmidt notes that she was beheaded standing, not sitting.)

The married woman had been intimate with 21 other men, even including a father and a son. But Anna’s own husband was more understanding of her than the cruel law of the time; as the executioner recorded in his diary, the lonely widower Jerome — whipped out of town for countenancing her whoredom — left behind a miserable reproach scrawled on the wall of a church:

Father and son should have been treated as she was, and the panderers also. In the other world I shall summon and appeal to emperor and king because justice has not been done. I, poor man, suffer though innocent. Farewell and good night.

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1730: Olivier Levasseur, “La Buse”

Add comment July 7th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1730, the pirate Olivier Levasseur was hanged at Reunion Island– legendarily hurling into the crowd cryptic directions to his vast hidden treasure.

Supposedly a bourgeois son of Calais, Levasseur (English Wikipedia entry | French) made his start on the briny deep as a French naval officer-turned-privateer during the War of Spanish Succession, transitioning to full-time buccaneer after that conflict ended in 1714.

By the 1720s — and with a bad eye necessitating that most trite of pirate accessories, the eyepatch — Levasseur had a mixed-race crew raiding the east African coast and the Indian ocean.

His most renowned exploit put him decisively in piracy’s 1%.

Descending upon the Portuguese galleon Cabo — fat with gems and gold bars and loose guineas and silks and a gigantic decorative cross and a noble’s diamond-encrusted +3 vorpal sword, all en route from the wealthy colony of Goa but disarmed at anchor off Reunion Island after having barely survived a storm — Levasseur’s band was able to plunder something on the order of a present-day value well north of £1 billion.


A lot more than that.

This stupendous fortune, even after dividing it democratically with the crew, would cinch Levasseur’s fame, and his fate.

La Buse (“the Buzzard”; alternatively, “la Bouche”, “the mouth”) naturally tried to take advantage of the next available pirate amnesty to cash out and retire, but found that he’d be expected to cough up his loot as part of the deal. So he hoarded his treasure instead, hung up his pirate’s cutlass, and tried to hide out. He was eventually captured casually working as a ship’s pilot off Madagascar and strung up by the French; you can still pour out a rum for him at his grave at Saint-Paul.


By Tonton Bernardo (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So much for Levasseur.

The reason we’re still talking about him three centuries on is that he’s alleged,* just before he dropped, to have hurled a bundle of parchments and/or a cryptogram necklace into the crowd assembled to watch him die, crying “find my treasure, who can!” or “my treasure for he who understands!”

And that’s pretty tantalizing stuff, considering the treasure has never since been found.

Levasseur’s boodle, if it did then and does still exist, is thought to be stashed somewhere on the Seychelles island of Mahe, and the slow and tantalizing unraveling of our corsair’s mysterious clues have seduced generations of treasure-hunters right into the present — like this fellow, or this one,** chasing after Masonic codes and rock etchings and Labors of Hercules and the promise of turning a five-figure investment in dynamite and scuba gear into a nine-figure payday and all the Discovery channel specials you can handle.

Until that day comes, Olivier is only a minor cinematic fixture. Basil Rathbone portrayed him (loosely) in the 1935 Errol Flynn vehicle Captain Blood (in that version, Rathbone dies by Flynn’s sword). An accessible treasure of this production, courtesy of YouTube: this 1937 radio drama of that same adventure, voiced by the principal actors:

* Here’s a skeptical take on the whole thing.

** If someone does have to find it, we’re rooting for this guy.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,France,Hanged,History,Pelf,Piracy,Pirates,Public Executions,Reunion Island

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1891: Four to save the electric chair

3 comments July 7th, 2011 Headsman

After its famously inauspicious debut the previous summer, this date in 1891 marked the second, third, fourth and fifth uses of New York’s pioneering electric chair.

Having grotesquely botched its maiden execution of William Kemmler, there was a considerable sentiment to retire the electric chair immediately.

The second round of “electrocutions” — 19th century papers still put this then-neologism in quotes — were closely watched as an acidelectric test of the chair’s staying-power. If these men burned to death, slowly and horribly, as Kemmler had, that might have been it. And had New York reverted to hanging or moved on to lethal injection,* the chair’s subsequent adoption by other states and its journey into the iconic popular culture would likely have been aborted.

But, they fixed up the chair, tested it on some more large animals, and moved the electrode combination from head+spine to head+leg … and voila!

There was nothing about the executions of the horrible nature that shocked the country when Kemmler was made the first victim of the law. If the testimony of a score of witnesses is to be believed, the executions demonstrated the use of electricity for public executions to be practical whether or not it is humane. While the Kemmler butchery, with all its terrible details cannot be forgotten, against that one awful failure the advocates of the law now point with unconcealed pride to four “successes.”

New York Times, July 8, 1891

“Unconcealed” pride would be an interesting choice for these advocates, since these prophets of brave new death technology had themselves feared a calamitous failure of their apparatus as much as anybody — well, as much as anybody except the condemned.

Consequently,

every witness of the execution was made to pledge himself in writing never to reveal any detail of it unless requested to do so by the authorities. No newspaper representative was admitted. As THE TIMES has repeatedly stated, it was the intention of the advocates of the law to keep the public from knowing anything about these executions … Therefore, Gov. Hill** and his henchman, Warden Brown, made up their minds that these experiments with the law should not go before the public as anything else than successes, and they packed the jury accordingly with picked men.

The Times dilates considerably in this vein; ever the helpful courtier, it is concerned principally that the state’s orchestrated public relations campaign would have had more credibility had the successful executions been witnessed by third parties who have newspapers to sell. You know?

But … if only the state’s handpicked friendly witnesses were allowed to see what went down, do we actually know that it wasn’t another dog’s breakfast? The July 8, 1891 London Times — for the executions had a global audience — cobbled together a less reassuring wire report.

There are, however, many conflicting statements current as to what actually occurred, and it is extremely difficult to discriminate as to which are true and which are false … Dr. Daniels, one of the witnesses of the executions this morning, said, in an interview this afternoon, that he might tell a great deal about the affair if he were not bound to silence. He added that the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case, there having been two shocks given to each of the condemned men. The truth, Dr. Daniels said, would make a thrilling story.

Wait, what!?

If Dr. Daniels actually said anything like that, someone got this electric chair proponent rewrite (pdf) pretty quickly.

I was misquoted. I simply said that if I were at liberty to give a detailed account of the scenes in the death chamber the public would no doubt be interested in knowing that the executions had been a pronounced success.

You could totally see how the guy would say “pronounced success”, and this British rag would hear, “the Kemmler scene was practically repeated in each case.” Separated by a common language and all that.

For the record, the chair salvaged itself upon these unfortunates:

  • James Slocum (a former minor league baseball player†), for murdering his wife
  • Levy Smiler, for murdering his mistress
  • Joseph Wood, for murdering a fellow-laborer
  • Shibuya Jugiro, a Japanese seaman, for murdering one of his comrades

History has all but forgotten them … save that their deaths were officially ruled a great technological triumph, sufficient to rescue “the chair” from abortive 19th century penal cul-de-sac and set it on its way to becoming a pop culture icon.

* The modern-seeming method of lethal injection was actually one of the options vetted to replace the rope in the 1880s.

** Hill at this time was flirting with a presidential run, which ultimately didn’t happen: he won a Senate seat instead.

Thanks to @LisaWinston for the tip to Slocum’s sports career.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Athletes,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Entertainers,Execution,Hanged,Murder,New York,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,USA

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1285: Tile Kolup, pretender

2 comments July 7th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1285, a pretender to the Holy Roman Empire* throne was burned at the stake in Wetzlar, Germany.

Kolup (English Wikipedia page | German) found room to perpetrate his fraud via the “King in the mountain” legend.

This myth of a past hero who sleeps out of sight, awaiting the opportune moment for return, has a wide cultural currency; King Arthur would be the readiest example for most Anglos.

In Germany from the 13th century, a similar myth attached to Emperor Frederick I “Barbarossa”, who had suddenly drowned during the Third Crusade in 1190 after reigning as Holy Roman Emperor for nearly 40 years. It’s a myth with enough resonance for this poem by 19th century German romantic Friedrich Rückert:

The ancient Barbarossa,
Frederich, the Kaiser great,
Within the castle-cavern
Sits in enchanted state.

He did not die; but ever
Waits in the chamber deep,
Where hidden under the castle
He sat himself to sleep.

The splendor of the Empire
He took with him away,
And back to earth will bring it
When dawns the promised day.

The chair is ivory purest
Whereof he makes his bed;
The table is of marble
Whereon he props his head.

His beard, not flax, but burning
With fierce and fiery glow
Right through the marble table
Beneath his chair does grow.

He nods in dreams and winketh
With dull, half-open eyes,
And once an age he beckons
A page that standeth by.

He bids the boy in slumber:
“O dwarf, go up this hour,
And see if still the ravens
Are flying round the tower.

“And if the ancient ravens
Still wheel above us here,
Then must I sleep enchanted
For many a hundred year.”

(To say nothing of the resonance for the Nazis who codenamed their invasion of the Soviet Union Barbarossa.)

Anyway, by the time we lay our scene late in the 13th century, when the Hohenstaufen line has tragically vanished, a version of this myth — the “Emperor of Peace” (German link) — has attached itself to Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II. Like Frederick I, he was a great and long-lived consolidator of the Empire; unfortunately, he’s been dead since 1250. Or has he?!

Tile Kolup appears in 1284 claiming to be this Frederick, who would have been going on 90 years old at this time. The good citizens of Cologne are his first audience, and he totally bombs with them; only their conviction that he’s more madman than usurper gets him run out of town with only a taunting.

But he finds a more receptive crowd in Neuss, and for a time keeps a court there and issues documents on Frederick II’s authority. Rudolph I, King of the Romans and butt of reindeer jokes, eventually nabs him in nearby Wetzlar and tortures him into admitting his imposture.

There are some succinct German biographies of this falsche Friedrich here and here.

* “This agglomeration which was called and which still calls itself the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire.” -Voltaire. (And the coffee talk lady.)

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 13th Century,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Germany,Heresy,History,Holy Roman Empire,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Torture,Treason

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