1660: Mary Dyer, Quaker

Add comment June 1st, 2017 Headsman

Mary Dyer was hanged in Boston on this date in 1660 — the most famous of that city’s four “Quaker martyrs”.

Monument in Boston to Mary Dyer as “witness for religious freedom”. (cc) image by Andrea Schwartz.

By the time of her last ordeal, Dyer already had a quarter century-old reputation for religious misbehavior in the New World.

She’d ditched England with her husband in 1635, part of that decade’s great outmigration of Puritan dissidents — “A Comely Grave Woman, and of a goodly Personage, and one of a good Report, having a husband of an Estate, fearing the Lord, and a Mother of Children,” according to an admiring account. Opinions varied: the colony’s governor found her “very censorious and troublesome, (she being of a very proud spirit, and much addicted to revelations).”

She brought with her a proclivity for the heretical: in Massachusetts, where the Puritan majority delivered the persecuting, Mary quickly fell foul of right-thinking folk by backing Anne Hutchinson in a theological controversy.* When Hutchinson was convicted by a church trial and banished, Mary Dyer cinematically walked hand-in-hand with her out of church. On top of everything else, she was known to have stillborne a deformed monstrosity (“a woman, a fish, a bird, & a beast all woven together”) which was the kind of thing these people understood as deadly serious.

Mary and her husband went to exile with Hutchinson, and were among the first English settlers of Rhode Island, before returning to spend most of the 1650s back in England. There, Mary Dyer converted to one of the new entrants to the Commonwealth’s welter of novel sects, Quakerism.

This new faith’s emphasis on egalitarian personal religious experience ungoverned by ordained clergymen met an instant ban once Massachusetts caught wind of it, with a statute imposing mutilated tongues and trips to the pillory for expounding the outlaw doctrine. To these would be added the threat of the gallows for repeat offenders with the temerity to return from banishment … and Mary Dyer is only the most famous of four Quakers who actually suffered this penalty.


The Heart of N-England Rent at the Blasphemies of the Present Generation: Boston Rev. John Norton‘s 1659 anti-Quaker tract advocates their execution.

Dyer’s defiance of the law was straightforward, keeping with the bold tradition of martyrdom in witness. Jailed in Boston in 1657, her husband (who had not yet followed his wife’s conversion) managed to arrange her release; she returned in 1659 to visit other imprisoned Quakers and they were all banished for their trouble. Shortly after, she returned to Boston with William Robinson and Marmaduke Stevenson: these were the first two Quakers put to death by the Puritans, but Mary Dyer was spared at the foot of the gallows and again expelled, finding temporary refuge in Rhode Island.

Edward Burrough’s A Declaration of the Sad and Great Persecution and Martyrdom of the People of God, called Quakers, in New-England, for the Worshipping of God, which also catalogues the many brutal punishments inflicted on Quakers up until 1661, preserves an account of Mary’s final return to Boston in May 1660 and her immediate arrest for same: it was enough for her to acknowledge her identity to reinstate her former sentence.

“I came in Obedience to the Will of God the last General Court, desiring you to Repeal your unrighteous Lawes of Banishment upon pain of Death; and that same is my work now, and earnest Request,” she told the court that doomed her. “If ye refused to Repeal them, the Lord will send others of his Servants to Witness against them.”

The very next day, she was drummed — to prevent her preaching — on a mile-long walk a gallows on Boston Common. This time there was no reprieve waiting: only immortality.

* This controversy drove the short-term governor Henry Vane back to England, and martyrdom during the interregnum.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,God,Hanged,Heresy,History,Martyrs,Massachusetts,Occupation and Colonialism,Public Executions,Religious Figures,USA,Women

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1970: Pedro Eugenio Aramburu, by the Montoneros

Add comment June 1st, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1970, Argentine general and former dictator Pedro Eugenio Aramburu was shot by a band of Peronist student guerrillas.

Aramburu (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) was one of the major figures behind the 1955 Revolución Libertadora that sent populist president Juan Peron fleeing to Spain. Peron was initially succeeded in the presidency by another general named Eduardo Lonardi, but before 1955 was out Aramburu had overthrown and replaced him, too; Aramburu ran the ruling junta until elections in 1958, maintaining a sharp ban on any vestige of Peronism — including even the mere mention of the exiled ex-president. He also had General Juan Jose Valle shot for plotting a Peronist coup in 1956.

The next two decades saw Argentina’s political institutions grow ever more painfully brittle, as shaky civilian governments were toppled in turn by equally shaky military rulers, every turn of the wheel eroding the country’s norms of orderly governance without attaining a stable political coalition. The charismatic Aramburu remained throughout a pole of anti-Peronism, which mattered as Peron’s long shadow grew and his return to Argentina began to seem likely.*

The faltering legitimacy of the government in turn spawned leftist guerrilla movements like the Peronist Montoneros, who entered Argentina’s political fray in gobsmacking style by abducting Aramburu in an affair the guerrillas called “Operation Pindapoy”.

On May 29, 1970 — Argentina’s Army Day and also the one-year anniversary of a suppressed popular uprising against the military government — two of the Montoneros terrorists disguised themselves as junior officers and presented themselves at Aramburu’s unguarded Buenos Aires apartment, claiming that the army had assigned them as his escort. The ruse worked like a charm.

With their prey in hand, the “officers” and their confederates stuffed him in a Peugeot and followed clattering dirt roads to evade police checkpoints, arriving that evening to a safehouse they had readied in the hamlet of Timote. There, a trio of young radicals constituted themselves a revolutionary tribunal and put Aramburu on “trial” for the murder of Gen. Valle and his fellow Peronist rebels fourteen years before.

Mario Firmenich, one of the dozen young Montoneros kidnappers, would later describe the three days they spent with their celebrated prisoner for a magazine: “His attitude was calm. If he was nervous, he controlled it.” Firmenich, who is still alive, has always insisted as he said then that their action evinced the popular will. “For the first time the people could sit on the bench and judge and condemn. That is what the Montoneros performed in Timote: to show the populace, that, beyond the pitfalls, legal chicanery and repression, there was a path to true justice, which stems from the will of a people.”

True justice was executed in the basement of their hideout. Having announced the inevitable verdict to Gen. Aramburu half an hour before, the leader of the cell shot him in the chest and then the head. The Montoneros then buried him, still bound and gagged, right there in the cellar — slathered with quicklime in an effort to hide the evidence.

It was a shocking blow to a fragile polity, and would help speed the (probably inevitable) fall of Gen. Juan Carlos Ongania, who was ousted from the presidency just a week after Aramburu’s murder.**

To grasp the profound effect of the kidnapping and murder of Aramburu it is necessary only to consult any Argentine periodical issued after May 29, 1970. Shortly after the kidnapping, Ongania announced in a televised speech that the death penalty would be imposed for crimes against public order. This decree was insufficient, however, to alleviate the feeling that order and authority had collapsed for good. (Source)

During Argentina’s subsequent dictatorship (and its escalating “Dirty War” against, amongst other subversives, the Montoneros), the town square of Timote was named for its unwilling guest Aramburu. That name has been changed in recent years.

* Peron did in fact return in 1973, amid bloodshed.

** Aramburu was probably involved in a plot to get rid of Ongania, whose credibility had gone to pieces in early 1970 quite independent of the Montoneros. Firmenich suspects this might account for the ex-president’s compliance with the purported junior officers who abducted him.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Argentina,Borderline "Executions",Execution,Heads of State,History,Murder,Politicians,Shot,Soldiers

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1946: Ion Antonescu

Add comment June 1st, 2015 Headsman

Romania’s wartime fascist dictator Ion Antonescu was shot on this date in 1946.

Antonescu (hand raised) and Adolf at Nazi headquarters in June 1941. Behind them are Ribbentrop and Keitel.

An army officer who worked his way up to the brass via his exploits in the Second Balkan War and then in World War I, Antonescu emerged as a major nationalist politician in the interwar period. He was the elite political figure who allied with Corneliu Codreanu‘s Iron Guard movement.

Antonescu became the Defence Minister in a a far-right government, was temporarily shouldered out of the state by King Carol II‘s coup, and then re-emerged as the leading alternative when Carol’s government was undone by the tectonic political crises in the run-up to World War II. After territorial concessions wrung by Romania’s neighbors triggered protests against the king in Bucharest, Antonescu on September 5, 1940, forced Carol to transfer dictatorial power to him — and shortly thereafter, he forced Carol to abdicate altogether.*

That left Carol’s son Michael the figurehead of state, and Ion Antonescu the actual strongman — at least, once he tamed the Iron Guard.

Antonescu oriented Romania towards Hitler’s Germany, including a fairly enthusiastic involvement in the Holocaust.**

For Germany, it was an important alliance: Romania’s oil fields were essential to powering the Reich’s mechanized army. And Romania ultimately fielded the largest Axis army other than Germany and Italy themselves with well over one million men under arms by the summer of 1944. For Romania, well, opportunism is as opportunism does: as Antonescu put it, echoing an ancient argument, “in today’s circumstances a small country which is under threat, such as ours, does not do what it wishes, but what it can.”

The Romanian “General Antonescu Army Group” joined the fateful invasion of the Soviet Union. Romanian divisions were prominent at Stalingrad where some 150,000 were lost as casualties or prisoners.

The turn of the war’s tide put Romania in a grievous dilemma whose parameters ran something like this:

  • Maintain Antonescu’s personal grip on power
  • Maintain the territorial expansion Romania had achieved early in the war
  • Exit the war without going down in Germany’s Gotterdammerung

… pick one of three. Provided it’s the last one.

As the Red Army approached from the northeast and American bombers struck from Italy and North Africa, Antonescu scrambled to sound out what kind of a deal he could cut with the Allies.

Antonescu might perhaps have negotiated without the desperation due his position,† and dilated with his decreasingly patient enemies while the Germans flattered him with the dream that he could still retain conquered Bessarabia (present-day Moldova). Only with the Soviet army on his doorstep was Antonescu finally disabused of the statesman’s dream and office both — when King Michael ousted Antonescu and immediately switched Romania to the Allied side.‡ This move accepted the Soviet occupation that was about to become a fait accompli, and put Romanian soldiers into the field for the last months of the war fighting against their former German allies.

It also put Antonescu into Soviet custody. He rode out the war under guard in Moscow, then was shipped back to postwar Romania where he would serve as the feature attraction of the People’s Tribunals.

One hundred eighty-seven people answered war crimes charges to these bodies; there were 13 death sentences, but only four were actually executed.§ All four — Transnistria governor Gheorghe Alexianu, Interior Minister Constantin Vasiliu, and Foreign Minister Mihai Antonescu (no relation — were shot on this date at Jilava. The executions were filmed.

* Carol went into exile, never to see his native soil again. He died in Portugal in 1953.

** “Of all the allies of Nazi Germany, Romania bears responsibility for the deaths of more Jews than any country other than Germany itself,” according to a 2003-2004 commission. “Efforts to rehabilitate the perpetrators of these crimes are particularly abhorrent and worrisome. Nowhere else in Europe has a mass murderer like Ion Antonescu, Hitler’s faithful ally until the very end, been publicly honored as a national hero.” (The full report is available here; the quoted lines come from its executive summary.)

† Berlin was keeping an eye on Romania’s separate-peace feelers, too, and had prepared a plan to occupy Romania should it attempt to desert the Axis. This is precisely the fate that befell Nazi-allied Hungary … but in Romania’s case, Germany never had the moment to implement the plan.

‡ Michael was, like his father, forced into exile in 1947; he did not return to Romania until after the collapse of Communism. Now in his nineties, King Michael is still alive as of this posting and remains the claimant should Romania ever re-establish its monarchy.

§ Six of the 13 death sentences were delivered in absentia. Notable among those fled souls was the Hungarian writer Albert Wass: Wass had escaped to the United States, which refused repeated appeals by Communist Romania to deport him. There is a running struggle in both Hungary and Romania over whether to rehabilitate Wass or posthumously rescind his death sentences. (Postwar Hungary condemned him, too.)

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Heads of State,History,Infamous,Notable Jurisprudence,Politicians,Romania,Shot,War Crimes

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1942: Vladislav Vancura, “Marketa Lazarova” author

Add comment June 1st, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1942, leftist Czech novelist Vladislav Vancura was executed at Prague’s Kobylisy shooting range.

An “unsung giant” of European letters, the Bohemian doctor burst onto the literary scene in the 1920s with Pekar Jan Marhoul (Baker Jan Marhoul) and Pole orná a válecná (Fields to Plough, Fields of War). But he was notable for a remarkable perspicacity in style, genre, and artistic perspective throughout his career. He’s often referred to as a poet in prose, and maybe for this reason was equally keen on writing for and directing cinema.

Milan Kundera credited Vancura with “probably the richest vocabulary that any Czech writer has ever had; a vocabulary in which the language of every era is preserved, in which words from the Bible of Kralice [the first complete translation of the Bible into Czech] stand humbly side by side with modern argot.”

His greatest commercial success and possibly his crowning achievement was Marketa Lazarova, a short novel (120 pages in the original Czech) set amid a feud of nobles in he Middle Ages. Only tranlated into English in 2013, it “does for Czech literature something akin to what James Joyce did for English-language literature with Ulysses: breaking with the realism that previously dominated to open up a new frontier in the realm of style.”

Here’s an excerpt (via):

Folly scatters without rhyme or reason. Lend an ear to this tale of a place in the county of Mladá Boleslav, in the time of the disturbances, when the king strove for the safety of the highways, having cruel troubles with the nobles, who conducted themselves downright thievishly, and what is worse, who shed blood practically laughing out loud. You have become truly too sensitive from musing upon our nation’s nobility and fair manners, and when you drink, you waste the cook’s water, spilling it ‘cross the table, but the men of whom I speak were an unruly and devilish lot. A rabble which I cannot compare to anything else than stallions. Precious little cared they of that which you account as important. Comb and soap! Why, they did not heed even the Lord’s commandments.

‘Tis said that there were countless such ruffians, but this story concerns itself with none save the family whose name most surely calls to mind Václav unjustly. Shifty nobles they were! The eldest amidst this bloody time was baptized with a graceful name, but forgot it and called himself Kozlík till the time of his beastly death.

Vancura’s death was plenty beastly too, albeit not particularly surprising: Communist avant-garde artists in German-occupied Slavic countries didn’t usually fare the best during the war years, and Vancura compounded his risk by taking active part in the resistance. He was among hundreds of Czechs arrested, tortured, and executed in the bloody German crackdown that followed the May 27, 1942 assassination of Reinhard Heydrich.

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1936: Arnold Sodeman, Schoolgirl Strangler

5 comments June 1st, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1936, Australia’s Arnold Karl Sodeman was hanged at Pentridge Prison in Coburg, Victoria.

The “Schoolgirl Strangler” used the same modus operandi on all of his four victims: strangled, gagged with their own clothing, the arms and legs tied after death, and their bodies dumped with little effort at concealment.

Born in 1899, Sodeman was raised in an unhappy home with a violently abusive father. He ran away at the first chance he got.

He went on to get in trouble with the law, for theft-related offenses and prison escape, and the authorities deemed him an “incorrigible rogue” — which was less charming than it sounds.

By his late twenties, Sodeman seemed to have settled down. He worked various laboring jobs, married in 1926 and had a daughter two years later. When sober he was a mild enough man, but under the influence of drink — which was often — he changed into a different person altogether.

However, his marriage was loving and happy, and he adored his little girl and his dog. Whatever else Sodeman might have done, he never mistreated his family.

His law-abiding life, however, didn’t last.

His first victim was twelve-year-old Mena Alexandra Griffiths, whom Sodeman kidnapped, raped and strangled on November 9, 1930. Her body wasn’t found for two days. She was the only victim who was sexually assaulted.

A month later the police arrested a suspect, a truck driver named Robert McMahon. Mena’s younger sister identified him, and he was committed for trial. Ultimately, after two and a half months in custody, he was released for lack of evidence.

But on January 10, 1931, while McMahon was still in jail, Sodeman struck again, abducting and strangling Hazel Wilson, a sixteen-year-old who suffered from tuberculosis. Hazel was last seen standing near her home, smoking a cigarette and horsing around with an unidentified young man. Her body turned up in a nearby vacant lot the next day.

The police put out appeals for the young man to come forward and “assist with their inquiries,” and even offered a reward for information leading to his identification, but their efforts came to nothing.

Hazel’s father, who reportedly had a violent temper, was looked at as a possible suspect in his daughter’s death, but he was cleared.

Although the police recognized the similarities in the Griffiths and Wilson crimes and realized it was probably the same perp in both cases, they had nothing concrete to go on. Both homicide investigations stagnated.

On January 1, 1935, after a four-year dry spell, Sodeman abducted Ethel Belshaw while she was out buying ice cream, and strangled her. She was twelve. He was her next-door neighbor and sometimes had tea with her family.

Sodeman was actually questioned by the police and admitted he had spoken to Ethel on the day she disappeared, but he said he’d left her alive, and nobody pressed him about it.

Instead, investigators focused on a teenage boy who had given contradictory statements about his movements on the day of the murder. He was arrested and charged with killing Ethel, but there was no evidence against him and the case was dismissed after a couple of days.

Left to right: Mena Griffiths, Ethel Belshaw, and June Rushmer. (Not pictured: Hazel Wilson.)

Exactly eleven months later, on December 1, he killed his last and youngest victim, six-year-old June Rushmer.

This victim he also knew slightly: she was a co-worker’s daughter, and Sodeman took it in his mind to kill her after she asked him for a ride on his bicycle.

(The Belshaws and the Rushmers couldn’t afford tombstones for their daughters. It wasn’t until more than seventy-five years later that the Australian Funeral Directors Association donated bronze plaques to mark their graves.)

It should be noted that Sodeman was drunk at the time of all four murders. “When in this state,” he reflected later, “thoughts would go through my mind concerning men, women and children whom I disliked … I would feel the desire to even it up, not caring what happened to them, but I would shake it off. As soon as the liquor wore off I could reason properly and would wipe it all off.”

At the time of the Rushmer homicide, Sodeman was part of a laboring crew repairing roadways.

Shortly after June’s murder, one of his coworkers joked that he’d seen Sodeman near the crime scene. Sodeman became so angry and defensive that the others got suspicious and went to the police. The cops hauled him away from his work site for questioning.

This time the police had finally got the right man. After twelve hours of interrogation, Sodeman confessed to everything in great detail, describing how he would link his thumbs together to get a better grip on the throats of his victims. He correctly identified the exact type of candy he’d used to lure the girls. He also admitted to the attempted murders of two other children.

At trial, Sodeman’s attorney had little choice but to go with an insanity defense. Sodeman certainly had the genetic background for it:

  • His great-grandfather died of “inflammation of the brain.”
  • His grandfather died in a mental hospital.
  • So did his father.
  • Annnnnd his mother suffered from serious short-term memory loss.

Sodeman himself had bouts of depression throughout his life, and he sustained a serious brain injury years before the murders started when he fell off a horse.

According to author Ivan Chapman, at Sodeman’s trial,

Three doctors — two of them Government medical officers — examined Sodeman and gave their individual opinions. One thought he had a brain disorder that flared when he drank alcohol; another decided he was neither conscious of, nor understood, what he was doing; the third believed Sodeman was not responsible for what he did. All three doctors backed down, however, when Sodeman’s confession was produced in court. They agreed that if it accurately described the facts of the crime, then Sodeman must have appreciated the nature and quality of his acts; none of them was prepared to declare him certifiably insane.

The verdict was, inevitably, sane and guilty as charged.

Although he did appeal his conviction, that went nowhere and Sodeman himself seems to have welcomed death. He said he felt it was necessary for him to die, because if he lived he believed he would kill again.

Sodeman spent the last afternoon of his life playing draughts with another condemned man, then slept soundly during the night. On the scaffold the next morning, when asked if he had anything to say for himself, Sodeman replied simply, “No, sir.” He died without any fuss.

His widow reverted to her maiden name after his death, hoping to escape the notoriety, and raised their daughter alone. She never remarried, and died in the 1980s.

The autopsy did uncover something interesting: it turned out Sodeman had suffered from leptomeningitis, a degenerative disease of the brain. When a person with this condition abuses alcohol, their brain can become seriously inflamed, which can cause irrational behavior among other symptoms.

Needless to say, the finding casts serious doubts on Sodeman’s ability to control his actions at the time of the murders. In fact, according to one criminal psychologist, Sodeman wouldn’t have even been found fit to stand trial if his crimes had occurred today.

But it was too late to do anything about it.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Australia,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Diminished Capacity,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Murder,Other Voices,Rape,Serial Killers

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1739: Michael Blodorn, “selvmordsmord”

1 comment June 1st, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1739, Michael Blödorn was stretched out on a scaffold at Copenhagen’s beautiful Kongens Nytorv (King’s Square), where an executioner set about smashing his limbs with heavy wagon wheels.


A 1727 illustration of Danish prisoners broken on the wheel.

Scholar Tyge Krogh’s new book titled (and about) The Lutheran Plague of suicide-murder.

As he lay suffering, Blödorn sang vigorously — a joyful hymn to lift his soul to heaven.

That, indeed, was why he was being broken on the wheel in the first place.

Blödorn was part of an alarming trend in Lutheran countries that waxed especially strong in Denmark: a homicide-to-heaven loophole apparently licensed by the Reformation theology.

Crudely put, the scam is this: you have a sure ticket to salvation if you die with no un-repented sin on your soul. But the only real way to know when you’re going to die is to kill yourself … and since that’s a mortal sin, that’s even worse than risking the everyday mischance of life.

But do like Mike and kill a random stranger to incur a death sentence, and you get to check out pure as the driven snow: assured last-minute repentance with no suicidal downside. Everybody wins!

Um.

Actually carrying out this plan required what you might call a deep commitment to your theology: in an effort to discourage the practice without backing off the death penalty for murder, penalties for apparent suicide-by-executioner cases had been ramped up into an archaic bloody theater. Blödorn, a soldier, had already been suffering weekly floggings leading up to the execution. Civilian murderers could look forward to having the flesh ripped with red-hot tongs.


Ouch. A 1727 illustration of judicial penalties that might attend a suicide-murder: tearing with hot tongs, the breaking-wheel, and severed hands.

Still, selvmordsmord persisted (Danish link: or, here’s the same story in Norwegian).

At last in 1767, the Danes reversed course abandoned capital punishment for “melancholy and other dismal persons [who committed murder] for the exclusive purpose of losing their lives,” implementing instead sentences of humiliating hard labor: a punishment to fit the crime and also meet the larger society’s need for deterrence.

“This made Denmark a pioneer when it came to abolishing the death penalty,” said Danish academic Tyghe Kroghe, author of a new book about the suicide-murder phenomenon. “But it was not something they did proudly. The decision violated the religious understanding of the criminal system.”

Here’s Kroghe discussing his research … in Danish.

Crazy, right?

Executions of men and women who not only decline to fight their sentences, but even commit their capital crimes with the intent to engineer their own executions, are hardly confined to the foreign country that is the past.

Maybe you wouldn’t point the finger at Martin Luther any longer, but Denmark’s very last civil execution was of an arsonist so insistent about attempting murder that the authorities finally gave him the peace of the grave that he desired. We’ve seen in these pages the headsman courted by people motivated by depression and by romantic love.

And numerous more modern criminals right into the 21st century look every bit like selvmordsmord cases. For example:

  • Christopher Newton, who killed his cellmate to draw a death sentence and was executed in Ohio in 2007;
  • Daniel Colwell, who gunned down a couple randomly to “win” a death sentence in Georgia in 2003 but died before reaching execution;
  • Mamoru Takuma, the mentally disturbed author of Japan’s notorious Osaka school massacre, who committed the crime with no intent to escape and immediately demanded a death sentence (carried out in 2004).

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Broken on the Wheel,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Cycle of Violence,Death Penalty,Denmark,Execution,Gruesome Methods,History,Murder,Soldiers

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1307: Fra Dolcino, Apostle

7 comments June 1st, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1307, radical preacher Fra Dolcino was gruesomely put to death in a daylong public torture at the Piedmontese town of Vercelli.

Dolcino was the millenarian successor of Gerard Segarelli, whose itinerant commune of impoverished penitents — Apostles, they called themselves, to the chagrin of the Church hierarchy — had attracted followers for near half a century before the powers that be smashed it.

The shade of the burned firebrand (and the corporeality of his refugee onetime followers) haunt the murderous monastery of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Here, the paternal Franciscan unraveling the novel’s mystery explains Fra Dolcino’s illicit movement to his naive protege.

We were talking about those excluded from the flock of sheep. For centuries, as pope and emperor tore each other apart in their quarrels over power, the excluded went on living on the fringe, like lepers … all of them were ready to hear, or to produce, every sermon that, harking back to the word of Christ, would condemn the behavior of the dogs and shepherds and would promise their punishment one day. The powerful always realized this. The recovery of the outcasts demanded reduction of the privileges of the powerful, so the excluded who became aware of their exclusion had to be branded as heretics, whatever their doctrine …

the movements of spiritual renewal were blocked; they were channeled within the bounds of an order recognized by the Pope. But what circulated underneath was not channeled. It flowed, on the one hand, into the movements of the flagellants, who endanger no one, or into the armed bands like Fra Dolcino’s …

From the cinematic adaptation of The Name of the Rose. The monk’s semi-coherent summons to “penitenziagite” is significant because it marks him as a former adherent of the penance-focused movement. An Italian metal band called Dolcinian had a song (and album) of that exact title.

But were they really an “armed band”?

Executed Today is pleased to mark this portentous anniversary in conversation with historian Dr. Jerry Pierce, currently working on a book about the outlaw movement.

ET: Who were the Dolcinians?

JP: A lot of people get kind of caught up in the Dolcino part. It’s not about him until the very end.

The group itself originated in 1260, and it lasted 40-some years before it ran into any trouble. Their whole goal when they start is essentially, live a life of poverty like the original Apostles. And apparently that’s a problem for people later.

That’s really all it was about. It’s communal living, it’s not owning things at all, including houses. By 1260, they were better Franciscans than the Franciscans were.

And the Franciscans had a big presence in the city of Parma, where this thing got started, so they were slightly peeved.

So it’s a challenge to the Franciscans?

It’s not trying to show up the Franciscans, but it becomes a challenge.

The “Apostles” wander around, they beg for their food, they tell people to do penance.

The early Franciscans started off the same way, all about poverty, but once they became established, the order became all about money.

And the Apostles are not the only ones mounting this challenge.

Right. Waldensians in France predate the Franciscans by about 30 years or so.* You just have a guy in France who’s a businessman who hears a reading of the gospel saying to give up your possessions and follow Christ. And that’s what he does. He even pays someone to translate the Bible into vernacular French, which is a big no-no.

His group and Segarelli’s group are not an issue as long as they don’t say anything about the doctrine. So long as they don’t say anything about the Trinity or the Eucharist, they’re just calling people to penance — they’re okay.

But the reason these groups come along is that in that period, around 1150 — Europe is experiencing a big economic change. The haves are on the side of the church. This is the core of all of them, and it’s the core of the Dolcino philosophy as well — the church is preaching poverty, but it’s living wealthy.

So they were doing something within the practice of the Church’s community for decades. How did they get so dangerously on the outs?

The bishop of Parma actually patronizes the Apostles and grants indulgences to people who give money to them. They’re not just some kooky group that’s out there even though the main writings about them are by their opponents.**

But what happens is they become really, really popular, and people start following them, and the Franciscans get the hierarchy involved.

There’s nothing doctrinal about them until Dolcino that becomes heresy.

And what specifically is that?

You take Segarelli’s stuff about poverty and radical egalitarianism, and you have Dolcino either witness or know about the execution of Segarelli, and that sort of crystallizes for him that members of the Church are forces of evil.

Basically, Dolcino says that if they would kill this guy for preaching nothing other than poverty, which is their own message, then there’s something wrong.

Because of the persecution — Segarelli’s execution, the Inquisition moving in and questioning people — that kind of pressure is what spurs Dolcino to take off to the northern mountains. That’s sort of the catalyst for him to become apocalyptic.

But even suppressing that takes the Church years.

The chronology is muddy because we only have about three sources, but we think he joined the order before Segarelli was executed. And between 1300 and 1302 or 1303, he’s off in the northeast of Italy near Trento.

He’s from Valsesia, a river valley in the Piedmont, and he eventually returns with a bunch of followers across the mountains — between Novara and Vercelli. It’s an important area because the bishops of the two cities have been fighting each other for access to the valleys, and fighting the local feudal lords, the Biandrate.

This family that’s been controlling the region, they’ve been extending their influence far up the river valley and the farther you go up the valley, the more independent the people are up there; they hate people who encroach on their autonomy and they’ve recently rebelled and kicked them out.

Essentially, Dolcino enters this sovereign territory, and he’s saying to the inhabitants, the wealthy church and the people who live down on the plain are wicked and they’re going to assault you, and sure enough …

And that’s the rebellion that takes place, it’s these farmers and families who live up there against the Crusader army.

A Crusade?

The Pope† allowed a papal indulgence for people going on Crusade up there. They essentially recruit a mercenary army.

The irony of it is that the things that Dolcino and his followers are accused of is raiding people’s houses and stealing all their stuff, and raiding churches and stealing all the gold. Well, guess who actually did that? And all the mercenaries needed to say when they plundered was, “uh, yeah, Dolcino did that.”

You have these non-Valsesian Crusaders and mercenaries who sort of move into these territories and basically get beat by the locals several times.

We know there was this final pitched battle. The Dolcinians flee to a mountaintop awaiting the End Times. Essentially what the Crusader army did was they starved them into submission, basically just blockaded the whole area, and then overran a bunch of starving women and children.

“On that day more than a thousand of the heretics perished in the flames, or in the river, or by the sword, in the cruellest of deaths. Thus they who made sport of God the Eternal Father and of the Catholic faith came, on the day of the Last Supper, through hunger, steel, fire, pestilence, and all wretchedness, to shame and disgraceful death, as they deserved.” (Source)

Dolcino also had a female opposite number, and the sect preached egalitarianism. Did they have an egalitarian gender politics as well?

The woman, Margaret or Margherita, it’s hard to tell exactly who she is — there’s all this embellishment. She’s sometimes called the “wife” of Dolcino, or sources call her the “mistress”, which makes it sound seedier. But we don’t actually know if they were involved or not involved. She was a former nun, and we know a little bit about her family, but there’s just not much about her.†

As to gender generally, the sources will say, these Apostles believed that nobody should own any property so they shared all their things and even their women.

So you’re meant to think that they just pass them around, but that wasn’t the case at all; there weren’t orgies and such. In this case, they did stress radical egalitarianism.

This is actually the ideology of the Christians in the first century: they also say, the world we live in is wrong, and it’s about to end — one of the things about the world they live in is, it’s patriarchal, and they come up with radical egalitarianism because there’s not supposed to be any distinctions in heaven and they’re looking forward to that.

We don’t exactly know if, in the end, it was the Dolcinians themselves fighting or the inhabitants of the area who protected them. But whoever it was, the [anti-Dolcino] sources on the battles also say, basically, “oh my God, the women are wearing pants and fighting next to the men.”

What’s the legacy of this whole movement?

In its own time, there were remnants of the Order of the Apostles still in Parma and the area for the next 20 or 30 years. It’s not heresy to be part of the group per se. There are references to sort of straggler parts of the group in France, in Spain, for the next 100 to 200 years, but it’s really hard to tell.

We do know they spread out pretty far. At one point under Segarelli they sent people to Jerusalem.

The people who live in Valsesia still today totally revere Dolcino. You can go on Dolcino hiking tours!

And there’s been this long history of appropriating his meaning.

“Thou, who perchance
Shalt shortly view the sun, this warning thou
Bear to Dolcino: bid him, if he wish not
Here soon to follow me, that with good store
Of food he arm him, lest impris’ning snows
Yield him a victim to Novara’s power,
No easy conquest else.”

-Mohammed, in Dante’s Inferno (He sounds prophetic, but Dante wrote after Dolcino’s death, with the action set while the heresiarch was still alive.)

In 1407, members of the Church went out and built a church consecrated to the fight aganist the heretics near the site where the Dolcinians were wiped out, and the local populace was outraged.

In 1907, Dolcino was appropriated by the Italian socialists. There was a workers’ group that planted a big red flag, and then they built a monument to him, with a plaque on it with the lines from Dante‘s Inferno.

There’s pictures of this monument, with tons of people up on the mountainside and they’re all dressed in their best.

And the monument lasted until the mid-1920s when the fascists blew it up with pro-fascist clerics. It was rebuilt in 1974, and you can see the old Catholic church from it — two opposing claims on Fra Dolcino.

Obviously you’re pretty sympathetic to this movement. What do you think we ought to make of them?

I think for me the key to understanding the whole order is not just to say, “well, everyone understands it wrong.” There’s a sort of willful wrongness to it, that whenever you put apocalypticism in it, it immediately puts people in the crazy category.

But in this period, when people talked about the end of the world, it didn’t necessarily mean they were nuts.

And then the other thing is, they’re not as violent and threatening as they appear on first read. I’m not even sure that they ever lifted a finger against the Crusaders, they may have just fled. Which in a sense means that they hold true to their values to the end.

More reading: A Historical Memoir of Fra Dolcino and His Times -ed.

* The Waldensians hung around into the Protestant Reformation, and still exist today.

** e.g., about Segarelli, by a Franciscan — who calls them something that translates loosely to “ribald bumpkins”.

Pope Clement V: he would prove more effective crushing the Templars.

‡ Margaret was also executed — allegedly turning down several smitten suitors’ offers to marry her if she would abjure. (Margaret was rich.) Although she’s most picturesquely shown burnt to death in front of Fra Dolcino during or before the latter’s torture, the sources seem to be unreliable as to whether she was in fact also executed on June 1, or on some other date.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Burned,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Dismembered,Execution,Famous,God,Gruesome Methods,Heresy,History,Interviews,Italy,Martyrs,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Pelf,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Religious Figures,Revolutionaries,Torture,Women

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1453: Çandarli Halil Pasha, after the fall of Constantinople

5 comments June 1st, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1453, Ottoman Grand Vizier Çandarli Halil Pasha (or Chandarly) was put to death, the first time anyone holding that office had suffered such a fate.

In Istanbul, Halil Pasha tower — part of the siegeworks used to take Constantinople — overlooks Fatih Sultan Mehmet Bridge, named for the man who ordered Halil Pasha’s death.

It was a stunning fall for the man who had presented himself in the sultan’s council just six days before to argue for discontinuing the seven-week-old Ottoman siege of Byzantine Constantinople.

This siege would succeed, on May 29, in conquering the second Rome, and it may have been Halil Pasha‘s longstanding opposition to this project so glorious for the rising Ottomans that cost him his life.

Or, something else; we are obliged to speculate. Other possible factors include:

  • Halil Pasha’s enormous personal wealth, which made his family both a potential rival and a source of confiscated revenues badly needed by the state.

  • Personal rivalry with the sultan now known as Mehmed the Conqueror, whom Halil Pasha had deposed in the former’s childhood in favor of his retired father when exigencies of state required a more experienced hand.
  • A generation gap with the sultan’s younger advisors. Both Ottoman and Christian sources recorded charges that he was in league with Byzantium’s defenders; even if not true in a literally treasonous sense, the veteran statesman had relationships with Christians through Constantinople and (as evidenced by his opposition to the siege) likely had more to lose than to gain from Mehmed’s aggressive foreign policy.

Especially in the last respect, Chandarly Halil Pasha’s death turned over a leaf in Europe’s complex relationship with the rising Turks. And among those inclined to view a clash of civilizations between the Christian and Muslim worlds, the May 29, 1453 Ottoman conquest of Constantinople rates as a day just as weighty for the fate of the world as for that of Halil Pasha himself.

A highly recommended digression: Lars Brownworth’s coverage in the 12 Byzantine Rulers podcast of that empire’s last ruler, Constantine XI — who died with his boots on the day Constantinople fell, “the empire as his winding-cloth.”

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On this day..

Entry Filed under: 15th Century,Byzantine Empire,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,History,Milestones,Nobility,Notable Participants,Ottoman Empire,Politicians,Power,Summary Executions,The Worm Turns,Turkey

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1962: Adolf Eichmann

6 comments June 1st, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1962, the architect of the Final Solution received such justice as could be meted to him on earth at Israel’s Ramla Prison.

Adolf Eichmann, the vacuum cleaner salesman turned SS Obersturnbannfuhrer, remains the only person judicially executed in the history of modern Israel, whose intelligence services kidnapped him from Argentina where he had settled after the war.

Other Nazis had used the “only following orders” defense with little success in the Nuremberg Trials shortly after World War II. On trial years later (and at the hands a Jewish state) Eichmann — a bookish, unmenacing man who invoked Kant — posed the questions of individual responsibility and human psychology in starker terms.

To be sure, he was no anonymous functionary. Neither, however, had he dirtied his nails at the stomach-churning business end of the Holocaust: rather, he had engineered the stupendous logistical project of deporting Eastern Europe’s Jews for extermination, an (impressive) accomplishment worth exponentially more lives than any Einsatzgruppe could ever account for, yet simultaneously abstract from the upshot.

Eichmann said he did it without ill-will towards its subjects — simply to obey and to achieve.

The Banality of Evil

[I]f it was of small legal relevance, it was of great political interest to know how long it takes for an average person to overcome his innate repugnance of crime, and what exactly happens to him once he has reached that point. To this question, the case of Adolf Eichmann supplied an answer that could not have been clearer or more precise.
-Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt took him at his word* and saw in Eichmann the abyss gazing back into us, into his judges — not a monster but a man unsettling in his normalcy, whose job was not TPS reports or quarterly sales results but turning humans into ash.

The company man. The career man. Every man, standing in for countless thousands more who pushed the papers that drove the trains to Auschwitz.

What for Eichmann was a job, with its daily routine, its ups and downs, was for the Jews quite literally the end of the world.

Not everyone accepts her conclusions, but Arendt’s characterization of “the banality of evil” has become the man’s epigraph. And Eichmann disturbs us precisely because we seem to be able to meet him on his terms, even sympathize with him when the horror of his crimes begs for a monster like Streicher or Goebbels we could safely consign to the Other.

Arendt’s turn of phrase has a certain breezy (hackneyed, even) life in the public discourse, but her analysis of Eichmann’s careerism remains a challenging and deeply relevant one for we heirs of the world that hanged him.

The complete transcript of Eichmann’s trial is available online here. Video of his trial has been posted online here (in English) and here (original languages).

* Albeit with some reservations; others have argued that Eichmann was considerably more personally invested in his mass-murder project than his demeanor at trial admitted. Certainly he had an interest in showing the mellower Eichmann when he was on trial for his life.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Crimes Against Humanity,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous Last Words,Germany,Hanged,History,Infamous,Israel,Language,Milestones,Notable for their Victims,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Sleuthing,Popular Culture,Soldiers,The Worm Turns,War Crimes

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