1566: Bartholome Tecia, Geneva sodomite

2 comments June 10th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1566, student Bartholome Tecia was drowned in Geneva as a sodomite.

Trial documents make him a youth from the valleys of northwest Italy’s Piedmont, where pockets maintained loyalty to the Evangelical Church of Vaud — Vaud being an adjacent Swiss canton that had been annexed by Calvinist Geneva. He was in the big city to study under Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in theological preeminence.

He’s been rediscovered by a more queer-friendly posterity. An eponymous play by Jean-Claude Humbert received a Geneva municipal literary prize in 2005, and the present-day Geneva visitor will see a commemorative marker for Tecia unveiled in 2013.


Plaque in Geneva honoring Bartholome Tecia, which reads “BARTHOLOME TECIA. Piedmontese student aged 15, denounced, tortured and sentenced on June 10, 1566 to be drowned in this place, for crime of homosexuality. Today, sexual orientation and gender identity must be universally recognized as basic human rights. Around the world, people continue to be discriminated against, persecuted and sentenced simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity.” (cc) image by MHM55.

There’s been a bit of pushback against this memorialization in view of the coercion alleged against him by two younger students. Executed Today would be the last to disclaim adolescents’ capacity for sexual predation, but it’s also the case that all three boys as participants in same-sex rendezvous would have feared themselves under the pall of the executioner: Geneva had drowned a similar trio for sodomy in 1554. While it’s obviously impossible at our remove to have anything better than a guess at the motivations and perspectives of the people involved, it does bear consideration that the accusers were powerfully incentivized to put the entire onus on someone other than themselves. For what it’s worth, Tecia militantly refused to confess, even when put to torture.

It happens that one of Tecia’s accusers was Theodore Agrippa d’Aubigne, the son of a participant in the Huguenot Amboise conspiracy to depose King Francis II. Agrippa d’Aubigne would go on to a scintillating military career during the French Wars of Religion, eventually settling in as Governor of Maillezais when his guy Henri IV won that war. That would have been a nice capstone to his career, except that France’s anti-Reformation turn following Henri’s assassination obliged him to flee a French death sentence for exile … to Geneva. He left an impressive literary legacy containing, to the best of my knowledge, no comment on l’affaire Tecia.

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1697: The Paisley Witches

1 comment June 10th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1697, the Paisley, Renfrewshire Gallow Green played stage for the strangling and burning of six “witches.” They’re known as the Paisley witches, the Renfrewshire witches, or the Bargarran witches, and are sometimes acclaimed the last mass-executed witches in western Europe.

This book posits a more than incidental resemblance between Salem and Renfrewshire, given that the “possessed child” figure was not a usual ornament for Scottish witchcraft cases.

In a setup bearing a disturbing similarity to the Salem witch trials,* an 11-year-old brat named Christian Shaw, the daughter of a local laird, got a tongue-lashing from the family servant and then turned around and accused her a sorceress.

The psychological mechanisms at play make interesting speculation in such cases. Was she merely a spiteful little monster, or did she believe in accordance with the superstitions of her time that the servant’s curses had effect, and suffer real afflictions that ensued upon this belief? Can we see her in the end as a creature necessarily produced by her nation in its troubled hour, unmoored as it was by the political and religious dislocations of the Glorious Revolution, gnawed by famine, and hurtling towards an unwilling union with England? (The bizarre execution of an Edinburgh university student for blasphemy also unfolded in 1696-1697.)

We leave such speculations to the reader as we plunge into the onset of supernatural doings in these environs almost a year before the consequent executions — via a 1698 pamphlet titled “A True Narrative of the Sufferings and Relief of a Young Girle Strangely Molested, by Evil Spirits and their Instruments, in the West”

August 22 [1696], the Child went to Bed in good health; but so soon as she fell asleep, began to struggle and cry, Help, Help: And then suddenly got up, and did fly over the top of a Resting-bed, where she was lying (her Father, Mother, and others being in the Room, and to their great Astonishment and Admiration) with such violence, that probably her Brains had been dasht out, if a Woman, providentially standing by, and supported by a Door at her back, had not broke the force of the Childs motion, who being laid in another Bed, remained stiff and insensible as if she had been dead, for the space of half an Hour; but for Fourty eight Hours thereafter could not sleep, crying out of violent Pains thorow her whole Body, and no sooner began to sleep or turn drowsie but seemed greatly affrighted, crying still Help, Help.

These frightening spasms continued for days, contorting her body and robbing her of speech; helpless doctors bled her to no effect.

Some dayes thereafter was an alteration in her Fitts, so far, that she got speaking, during the time of them; and while she was in the fits, fell a crying, that Katharine Campbel and Agnes Naismith were cutting her side, and other parts of her Body; Which parts were in that time violently Tormented. And when the fit was over she still averred, that she had seen the same Persons doing the same things which she complained of while under the fit (it being remarkable that in the intervals she was still as well and sensible as ever) and would not believe but that others present saw them as well as she!

Katharine Campbell was servant who had chewed her out. Agnes Naismith was an old lady with a witchy reputation. In time they would headline the execution that occasions this post.

We must here pause to remark that the decision of the adults around Christian Shaw to steer this crisis in the girl’s life towards a judicial witch hunt was by no means predetermined. While capital statutes against bewitchment remained on the books, they were fading in practice; according to the invaluable Survey of Scottish Witchcraft database, there had been only a single witchcraft prosecution in Scotland since 1683, and that one did not result in execution. The sudden eruption of a dormant and vanishing cosmology, with sufficient force to devour seven humans, shocks the eye.

Credit must go to Shaw for a rare commitment to the performance, as her symptoms continued intermittently for months, and accumulated a growing roster of accused supernatural tormentors. She was taken to Glasgow for treatment, and taken again; she went on regimens of prayer and fasting; at one point she began pulling debris out of mouth like a prestidigitator, in such number and variety that her doctor remarked that “Were it not for the hairs, hay, straw, and other things wholly contrary to human nature, I should not despair to reduce all the other symptoms to their proper classes in the catalogue of human diseases.”

Although modernity will doubt that they bewitched the child, the accused women, Agnes and Katharine, knew exactly what was up when they were brought to confront their accuser. They addressed their common peril with opposite strategems. Agnes, “did (tho not desired) pray for her, viz. that the Lord God of Heaven and Earth might send the Damsel her health,” which prayer cured Christian Shaw of continuing to accuse Agnes of muddling her (“upon the contrary, as she apprehended, defending her from the fury of the rest” of the witches) — whereas the saltier Katharine “could by no means be prevailed with to pray for the Damsel, but upon the contrary when desired by some, cursed them and all the Family of Bargarran, and in particular the Damsel and all that belonged to her, withal adding this grievous Imprecation; The Devil let her never grow better, nor any concern’d in her, be in a better condition than she was in, for what they had done to her.” I like this Katharine, but Laird Bargarran had the sheriff throw her forthwith into the dungeon; the reader may recall from our foreshadowing that Agnes’s more diplomatic approach did not ultimately serve her any better.

By January, five months after Christian’s first fits, the doctors and ministers had been defeated and the Privy Council appointed a tribunal to investigate the matter and shoo away the hags bothering Christian Shaw. The annals of their actions makes for repellent reading, even by the standards of judges. Readers with strong eyeglass prescriptions can enjoy the full pdf here, but most will probably prefer this lucid summary by Undine, a onetime Executed Today guest blogger. We also have a Victorian compilation of records related to the affair here.

The hunt swept up a 14-year-old boy and his 11-year-old brother, a 17-year-old girl who was made to furnish accusations that incriminated still more people besides. One can see in our credulous 1698 account the enspelled little shit begin to revel in her theatrics and the power she held over her neighbors.

February 12. Margaret Laing and her Daughter Martha Semple, being delated by the three Confessants, and accused by the Girl to have been active instruments in her Trouble, came of their own accord to Bargarran’s House, and before they came up Stairs the Girl said, she was now bound up, and could not accuse Margaret Laing to her face: And accordingly the Girl’s Mother having desired somer of those who were sitting by her to feel some parts of her Body, and they having done it, found her Body so stiff and inflexible, that there was no moving of it, and immediately again found some parts of her Body contracted and drawn hard togethe [sic], as if by Cords; after this Margaret Lang and her Daughter, having gone to the Chamber of the Girle, did in presence of the Ministers and others, desire the Damsel to come to her; for she would do her no Harm, and laying her Arms about her, spake very fairly to her, and question’d her if ever she had seen her other Daughter among her Tormentors, to which the Girle did positively reply, she had frequently seen her Daughter; but declined thorow fear to accuse herself, saying faintly No, after which Margaret and her Daughter returning into the Hall, and the Minister enquiring at her why she said No, seeing she had accus’d her before, she answered, take me contrar, upon which she was seiz’d with a grievous Fit; yet after her recovery being urg’d again by those present to tell her Mind freely, whether or not Margaret Lang was one of her Tormentors the Child thereupon Essaying to say Yes, and having half-pronounced the Word, was cast into unexpressible Anguishes; and again in the interval of the Fit, she Essay’d to express the same thing, and saying only the word Tint (that is soft) was on a sudden struck with another fit, and when the fit was over, and the Child returned to the Chamber, Margaret Lang who was sitting near the Hall door, spoke these words after her. The Lord bless thee, and ding (that is beat, or drive) the Devil out of thee. A little after which words, Margaret going down stairs, the Damsel came to the Hall and said, her Bonds were now loos’d, and that now she could accuse Margaret Lang to her Face, and declar’d the occasion of her being so Restrain’d and Bound up while Margaret was present, was her letting fall a parcel of Hair at the Hall door as she came in; being a Charm made by her for that end, which also had been the occasion of her uttering the word Tint in the former fit: And accordingly a parcel of Hair had been found at the Hall-door, after Margaret Lang had gone straight from the Hall to the Chamber, which immediately was cast into the Fire and burnt. And its remarkable, that it could be attested that there was no Hair, or any other thing else in that place before Margaret Lang came in, and the Girle being enquired, what way she knew Margaret Lang had laid the forementioned Charm upon her, replyed, something speaking distinctly to her as it were above her Head, had suggested that to her.

In the end — and posterity unfortunately lacks the original trial record — there were seven condemned to death and although their names in the surviving accounts “are not very distinctly stated” they appear to comprise our two original accused, Katharine Campbell and Agnes Naismith, the aforementioned Margaret Lang, the 14-year-old child James Lindsay and an apparent kinsman named John Lindsay, and also John Reid and Margaret Fulton. (Some accounts more mawkishly make it little James Lindsay with his 11-year-old brother Thomas, but that’s not indicated by the primary sources which repeatedly note that Thomas is “under the age of pupilarity.”)

John Reid managed to hang himself in prison and cheat the executioner. Katharine Campbell did him one better by fighting her persecutors all the way to the stake, and deservedly showering everyone in earshot with curses. The legend has it that Campbell’s malediction lurks behind any civic setback endured by Paisley down the years, such as the 1810 Paisley canal disaster. A horseshoe placed over the embittered sorceress’s grave to keep ill fortune at bay was lost in the 1960s; in 2008, a brass horseshoe plaque was installed in its place at the intersection of Maxwellton and St. George Streets — the memorial admitting the injustice done to all the Renfrewshire witches.


(cc) image by Paisley Scotland.

As for the witches’ accuser, Christian Shaw mirrored in her own life’s story the epochal shift that transformed witches from a legally recognized threat to a ridiculous superstition — as she grew up to become essentially the founder of Paisley’s distinctive (and still to this day important) thread industry by creating the “Bargarran Thread” .

* Coincidentally, the first execution of the Salem trials also occurred on June 10.

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1863: Not Nathaniel Pruitt, reprieved deserter

Add comment June 10th, 2017 Headsman

On this date 150 years ago, according to Larry Daniel’s Soldiering in the Army of Tennessee, a middle-aged man was all set to be shot for deserting the Army of Tennessee, and the much-resented command of Gen. Braxton Bragg.

In a well-documented incident, a soldier received a reprieve as a result of a dramatic incident. Forty-seven-year-old Nathaniel Pruitt of the Nineteenth Tennessee was found guilty of desertion and on June 10, 1863, was taken to a field beside his regimental camp, his coffin placed beside an open grave. A minister cut a lock of hair to give to Pruitt’s wife. The firing squad was positioned and ordered to take aim, but just then an officer came galloping up with a special order to suspend the sentence. The prisoner began crying. “I was truly glad [of the reprieve], but must say some of the boys were disappointed,” a Mississippi diarist noted. Incredibly, the very next day, Pruitt again deserted and was never heard from again.

One takes the author’s point here about Pruitt’s risk-seeking second flight, but even so it might not really be all that “incredible” that one would desert the company of armed men who had recently shown open disappointment about being prevented from shooting one dead.

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2015: Aftab Bahadur Masih, “I just received my Black Warrant”

Add comment June 10th, 2016 Headsman

A year ago today, Pakistan amid its ravenous 2015 execution binge hanged Aftab Bahadur Masih in Lahore for a 1992 murder.


Two faces of Aftab Bahadur Masih, separated by two decades on death row.

According to the anti-death penalty organization Reprieve, Masih was only 15 years old when he committed the crime. According to Masih himself, he never committed it at all — but instead was tortured into confession by the police.

Don’t take my word for it. Masih wrote a moving first-person essay for the Guardian that was published hours before his hanging.

I just received my Black Warrant. It says I will be hanged by the neck until dead on Wednesday, 10 June. I am innocent, but I do not know whether that will make any difference.

Read the rest here. Masih was also a self-taught painter; one of his products can be seen in this Wall Street Journal story.

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1822: Armand Valle, carbonari plotter

Add comment June 10th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1822, Armand Valle was guillotined in Toulon.

We meet Restoration France in the 1820s under the sway of an Ultra-Royalist ministry — headed, from December 1821, by Jean-Baptiste de Villele. This was the faction whose perspective on the preceding generation’s tectonic events was to roll it all back; their legislative programme would be to restrict the franchise, reassemble great estates, and generally rebuild as much of the ancien regime as could be salvaged from the aftermath of the Tennis Court Oath.

Villele would serve as Louis’s Prime Minister for six and a half years, and he set the tone right away in 1822 by investigating as conspirators virtually any two Jacobins, Bonapartists, or Liberals who clinked glasses.

The man did have reason to fear.

A round of revolutions had rocked Europe in 1820-21; the Italian carbonari in particular certainly spread into France, right down to the name (charbonnerie). And over the preceding decades, each of the royalists’ rival factions had been rudely dispossessed of power in successive violent overturnings of each new social order; each movement nursed its own grievances and spawned true believers ready to spin ahead the cycle of revolutions by intrigue, or munition.

And in 1820 — and this was the proximate reason Villele had ascended to his current place in statecraft — someone had assassinated the heir to the throne, triggering a massive reaction.

Can we pity the secret policeman? Ultra-royalist France had to chase ghosts; the conspiracy against the Orleanists must have seemed omnipresent, yet ever receding as agents provocateur entrapped this or that suspected subversive who turned out to be some embarrassingly minor dissident. At the same time, the security-mad repressive atmosphere of the times — France even went so far as to introduce the death penalty for sacrilege* — tended to channel potentially “normal” political activity into murmured intrigues.

Even as France’s crackdown neatly generated its own self-justifying threat, the cases that it did bring to trial made the martyrs whose sacrifices vindicated the regime’s foes.

We have already met in these pages the Sergeants of La Rochelle, young officers of charbonnerie sympathies. Indeed, France’s citizen army, so recently grande, ran thick with characters who conceived of much worthier polities to exercise their arms for than Bourbon absolutism.

At the end of 1821, a conspiracy for a rising by the Belfort garrison had been suppressed; the liberal deputy (and American Revolution hero) Lafayette was compromised and only narrowly avoided being implicated.**

Just days after the abortive Belfort plot fizzled and with the brass on high alert, our man Armand Valle had the indiscretion to “[entertain] a number of half-pay and retired officers at a tavern at Toulon. After inveighing against the pretensions of the nobles and the growing power of the clergy, he read out to his audience the statutes of the Carbonari.” (Source, which misdates Valle’s subsequent execution) His suspicious superiors had him seized, and soon found half-destroyed documents written in his hand implicating Valle as a carbonarist recruiter.†

Valle perhaps stood a fair chance of beating or minimizing the imputation of treasonable design since the evidence against him was partial and suggestive, and did not point conclusively to an actual plot against the state. But at the court where his barristers attempted to mount such an argument, a martyr-minded Valle overwhelmed all doubts by repeatedly interrupting to rant against the proceedings, the judiciary, the monarchy, and their collusion with France’s enemies. Here, surely, was a man to gratify those frustrating exertions of police spies.

On June 10 before great crowds of the citizens of Toulon, he marched with his escort to the scaffold. That last journey of former captain Valle has been retold in several accounts as a heroic calvary. There is Valle dressed almost foppishly, forbidding women to weep for the demise of his young beauty; asking for a glass to toastt the braves and la patrie; bidding adieu to his country once more on the scaffold as the drum rolls drown out his last words.

This romantic tale is confirmed in the complacent reports of the president of the tribunal at Toulon: Valle takes the glass, he makes the toast, and then, “thrown down on the fatal machine, he tried to address the crowd. The drum roll swallowed up his voice.” (Source)

A decade after Valle’s beheading, fellow-travelers erected a monument to him inscribed, “The Faithful Armand Valle d’Arras, a member of the Legion of Honor, captain of the cavalry of the former Imperial Guard, died June 10, 1822 a martyr of freedom. In gratitude, the patriots of Toulon.” (There’s a photograph of the still-extant obelisk here, part of this French forum post of Toulon markers.)

* It never carried out such a sentence under the Anti-Sacrilege Act prior to that law’s repeal in 1830.

** Lafayette got word of the plot’s failure while en route to the scene, and prudently returned home, destroying whatever was incriminating.

† A Commandant Caron was Valle’s carbonari paymaster, and Valle’s arrest ruined a coup that Caron was planning — helping lead to the latter’s own exposure, arrest, and (later in 1822) execution.

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1902: Hirsh Lekert, Jewish assassin

Add comment June 10th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1902, the Jewish socialist Hirsh Lekert was hanged in Vilna (Vilnius) for his attempt on that city’s governor.

The 22-year-old shoemaker, active in the Bund since childhood, was aggrieved along with many others by repressive measures taken against that leftist council by Vilna governor Victor von Wahl — culminating with the calculated humiliation he inflicted by personally overseeing the flogging of 20 Jews and 6 Poles arrested at a May Day demonstration.

As was the style at the time, Lekert took some retaliatory potshots at the municipal dictator on May 18, 1902. He scored a couple of flesh wounds before the police on hand beat him all to hell.

And that was pretty well that. Lekert got sent to face a military tribunal with a foreordained result. But he made his bones with posterity by refusing to apologize and instead fearlessly vindicating his action as a defense of the Jewish worker’s dignity.

This carried his legend in the early 20th century Jewish community much further than one might assume.

For Jewish Workers Bund, “the first great attempt at the organization of the Jewish masses for secular and independent political activity,”* Lekert’s uncompromising embrace of revolutionary violence created an internal controversy: radical workers saw a martyred hero; elites, and the Bund officially, were much more wary of terrorism provoking official backlash in an empire where Jewish communities were still liable to be targeted by pogroms at any time. All this during a renaissance of cultural and political thought among Eastern European Jewry.

Even decades later, the esteem remaining Lekert from his sacrifice gave his name power. Another generation of Jewish terrorists — in Mandate Palestine — was incensed at the British for flogging some Irgun members, leading Menachem Begin to invoke Lekert as his justification for kidnapping several British soldiers and flogging them. (Source) The British had no stomach for this, and desisted with floggings.

Artistic tributes followed as well — folk songs; plays by Arn Kushnirov and H. Leyvik; the bust that illustrates this post; a monument in Soviet Minsk; even this appearance in a 1927 silent film called His Excellency:

And from the hellish Vilna Ghetto under Nazi occupation, the great poet of the Holocaust Abraham Sutzkever depicted his “Teacher Mira” trying to keep her students’ heads up by reminding them of the Vilna cobbler who fought back.

Her skin, a windowpane in stains of dusk,
Mira must not reveal the darkness thus.
She bites her lip, of courage she will tell:
About Hirsh Lekert, how he fought and fell.

* Koppel Pinson, “Arkady Kremer, Vladimir Medem, and the Ideology of the Jewish ‘Bund'”, Jewish Social Studies July 1945.

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1944: Massacre at Oradour-sur-Glane

28 comments June 10th, 2013 Meaghan


(cc) image from fintbo.

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

On this date in 1944, four days after the Allied invasion of Normandy, an SS battalion from the 2nd SS Panzer Division massacred almost the entire village of Oradour-sur-Glane in west central France, slaughtering in all 642 people.

You can read all about this hecatomb and its aftermath on this very thorough and impressive website dedicated to the atrocity, from which much of the information in this account is drawn.

The tiny village, which you could walk through in all of ten minutes, had been the victim of mistaken identity.

Twenty miles away was a somewhat larger town with a similar name, Oradour-sur-Vayres, which was known for its Resistance activity. Adolf Diekmann, commander of the SS battalion, had been informed that the French Resistance had captured an SS officer (possibly the kidnapped Waffen-SS Sturmbahnfuhrer Helmut Kampfe, who had been executed by the Resistance earlier that same day) in Oradour-sur-Vayres and decided reprisals were needed, but he got the two villages mixed up and went to Oradour-sur-Glane instead.

When the SS arrived in the village at lunchtime, they ordered all the inhabitants to assemble in the fairground to have their papers checked. Everyone had to come, including children and the sick. Six people who were not residents but happened to be in the village at the time were also sent to the fairground.

Twenty villagers who had some compelling reason to avoid the Nazis, or merely had a bad feeling about the whole thing, hid or left the village as soon as the SS division showed up. These twenty survived. One seven-year-old boy, Roger Godfrin, was spotted and shot at, but survived by playing dead. He was the only survivor in his family, and the youngest survivor from the town.

The women and children were locked in the village church, and the men were lead to barns and sheds where the machine guns were set up. They were shot in their lower bodies and legs, in order to prolong their deaths. One of the men, who’d lost a leg in World War I, supposedly cried out, “Those bastards! They have cut my other leg off!”

After the shooting, as the men of Oradour-sur-Glane lay helpless, the SS men locked the sheds and set them on fire.

Only six men were able to escape. They hid in some rabbit hutches for several hours before attempting to escape the village. Five of them made it, but Pierre-Henri Poutaraud was spotted later that day and shot dead. The SS man who shot him then tethered a horse to Poutaraud’s outstretched hand.

In all, 190 men were killed.

The SS division then went back to the church, set off a smoke bomb inside it, and set the building on fire. Anyone who tried to get out of the church was machine-gunned. One woman cried out that she was German, not French, and begged to be released, but the SS shoved her back into the flames.

47-year-old Marguerite Rouffanche was able to slip out the back window, and another woman followed her with her seven-month-old baby, but all three of them were shot and only Marguerite survived, hiding in a garden for more than 24 hours until help arrived. Her two daughters were killed. (Marguerite refused to leave Oradour after the massacre. She remained there for the rest of her ninety-one years and is now buried in the village cemetery.)

The church fire and shootings claimed the lives of 247 children and 205 women.


Children from the village’s girl’s school, in the 1942-1943 school year. All of these girls were killed in the massacre.

Unbeknownst to the Nazis, there were several Jews living in the village, among them five children between the ages of eight and fifteen. Twelve of them were killed. In the case of a Jewish family called Pinede, the parents decided to present themselves for inspection but told their three children to hide. The children survived; their parents did not. One of those three Jewish survivors was still alive as of 2004.

Several days passed for the 26 survivors were permitted to bury their dead. Only 52 of the bodies could be identified; the other ones were burned too badly to be recognizable.

Collective punishment in reprisal for the actions of others was par for the course in Nazi-occupied Europe, and Adolf Diekmann had directed his unit to commit a number of mass shootings. Even so, he didn’t have authorization for the bloody events at Oradour-sur-Glane and his commanding officer requested for a court-martial, saying, “I cannot allow the regiment to be charged with something like this.” Field Marshal Erwin Rommel supposedly volunteered to preside over the court-martial himself.

But before that could happen, the war took care of Diekmann: he was killed on the Normandy front on June 19, hit in the head with shrapnel, a mere nine days after his last atrocity. The front, in fact, took care of most of his unit: only 65 of the 200 members survived the war.

In 1953 in Bordeaux, a military tribunal convened to hear the case against the surviving members of the 2nd Panzer Division. Only 22 of them were present in the courtroom; the others were in East Germany, which refused to extradite them. All but one said they’d been conscripted into the SS; one of them admitted he’d joined voluntarily to fight Communism.

To further complicate matters, 15 of the defendants present were actually French nationals of German descent, from Alsace-Moselle, and 14 of them claimed they’d been drafted against their wishes.

(After they conquered France, Germany declared inhabitants of Alsace to be German citizens whether they wanted to be or not, and drafted the region’s men. The conscripts were known in France as Malgre-nous, meaning literally “despite ourselves.”)

In addition, eight of the French defendants had been under the age of 18 when they were drafted into the SS, making them minors under French law. Many French people, including some of the survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane, viewed the Alsatian conscripts as fellow-victims of Nazi Germany and didn’t believe they should be held responsible for their actions.

Most of the defendants were cagey.

They implicated each other, but not themselves, admitting to some specific offenses but denying other, far more serious ones. One man, for example, said he’d been part of an execution squad that shot 20 men, but insisted he’d only helped load the machine guns and hadn’t personally shot anyone. Another said he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane at all, but was stationed as a sentry outside the village to prevent escapes. Only one of the defendants had admitted to killing anyone at all prior to the trial.

Twelve members of the victims’ families came to watch the trial proceedings, including an eight-year-old girl whose father and grandfather had been killed. Marguerite Rouffanche was ill at the time of the trial and very weak, but she showed up anyway and testify about her experience. Roger Godfrin, the little boy who played dead, also testified.

The tribunal’s judge demanded the defendants view photographs of the charred corpses of the victims, saying, “Let them look at the glorious work of the valiant Third Company of Der Führer Regiment.”

When the prosecutor summed up the case, he referred to the defendants’ evasive statements and said, “You might as well say despite the heaps of ashes and ruins, that the massacre never took place. But the people of Oradour are dead.”

The tribunal deliberated for thirty-two hours before returning its verdicts. One of the defendants was able to prove he hadn’t been in Oradour-sur-Glane the day of the killings, and was acquitted. The rest were convicted.

The 46 members of the SS unit who hadn’t shown up for trial were sentenced to death in absentia, as was one of the German nationals and one of the French. The others got various prison sentences, mostly between five and eight years, none exceeding twelve years. The Germans tended to get longer prison terms than the French. In addition, the Germans were prohibited from residing in France for at least twenty years.


Survivors of the Oradour-sur-Glane massacre.

No one in France was happy with the tribunal’s ruling: some said the sentences were too harsh, others, too lenient. In the face of widespread protests from the Alsace area and threats to secede from France, the French National Assembly passed a bill granting amnesty to all Malgre-nous (at a vote of 319 to 211, with a whopping 83 abstentions) and 13 of the 14 Frenchmen were released only eight days after the verdict was rendered. (One of them, the one who had volunteered for the SS, got no sympathy from anyone and no such leniency.)

Germany was upset, saying it was unfair to pardon the French SS but not the Germans. But within five years, everyone had been freed. No one was actually executed.

In 1981, East German authorities tracked down Heinz Barth, a second lieutenant in the 2nd Panzer Division, and put him on trial in their country for his role in the Oradour-sur-Glane Massacre.

He never tried to deny his participation in the attack, and used the old “just following orders” defense, saying, “In war one acts harshly and with the means available.” Barth admitted he helped round up the village men and personally shot fifteen times into the crowd. He also acknowledged responsibility for the deaths of nearly 100 people in Czechoslovakia.

Barth was convicted in 1983 and sentenced to life in prison. In 1991, still behind bars, he was awarded a pension as a “war victim” because he’d been wounded in Normandy in August 1944 and lost a leg. The resulting howls of protest led the government of a newly reunited Germany to pass a law stripping convicted war criminals of their pensions.

Barth was released from prison in 1997, and managed to finagle his war pension back somehow. He died of cancer ten years later, at the age of 86.

Marguerite Rouffanche died in 1988. Her fellow-survivor Roger Godfrin died in 2004.

The survivors of Oradour-sur-Glane created a new village after the war, but the burned-out ruins of the old village remain, with rusted cars, sewing machines, bicycles and other personal items lying in plain sight on the street, a grim testimony to what happened there nearly seventy years ago.


The ruins of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane today. (cc) image from Olivier Lepicier.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Burned,Children,Execution,France,Germany,Guest Writers,History,Innocent Bystanders,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Other Voices,Shot,Wartime Executions,Women

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1896: Amelia Dyer, baby farmer

5 comments June 10th, 2012 Headsman

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

On this date in 1896, Amelia Elizabeth Dyer was hanged at Newgate Prison in London. At 58 years old, she was the oldest woman hung in Great Britain between 1844 and 1955.

Amelia was a baby farmer, one of many from that time and place. Baby farmers would, for a fee, take an infant or toddler if its mother was unable or unwilling to care for it. The idea was that the baby farmer would either become the baby’s foster parent, or find someone else to foster or adopt the child.

In the days when illegitimacy carried a heavy social stigma, this was an attractive option — indeed, often the only option — for single or impoverished mothers, and likewise for communities facing the burden of an orphaned newborn. Young Oliver in Charles Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist grew up on a baby farm after his mother died in childbirth and his father disappeared.

In many cases, everyone benefited from the transaction: the mother would go back to her life knowing her baby was all right, a childless couple would have a baby to love, and the baby itself would grow up in a secure home.

Unhappily, however, many other cases produced horrendous results: the baby was not necessarily safe once the mother had handed it over and paid money in advance for its care. Unscrupulous and greedy women realized that, once they got the lump sum payment, they could make a profit if the baby died, the sooner the better.

Victorian Britain was rife with baby farmers who would quietly do away with their helpless charges, or simply starve and neglect the infants until they expired. Authorities made unavailing, ill-enforced attempts to control the problem by, for example, requiring women who adopted or fostered more than one infant at a time to register. (And by doling out a few sporadic, but high-profile, executions.)

It was a widespread and well-known problem, as Alison Rattle and Allison Vale note in their biography, Amelia Dyer: Angel Maker:

It was impossible for newspapers of the day to keep count of the numbers of bodies found strewn about the towns and cities. Scarcely a day passed without yet another report of the corpse of some young innocent being found abandoned beneath the seat of a railway carriage, under an archway, in a sewer grating or just carelessly dumped in one of the open spaces of a city suburb. Many cases were not even reported …

Amelia Dyer was the worst of the worst.

She was convicted of a single murder, but they’d found the bodies of half a dozen more, and by the time she was caught she’d been operating for for twenty years or more. Her victims may well have numbered in the hundreds, making her a mass killer of Harold Shipman-like proportions.

Amelia was born in Bristol to a respectable working-class family. Unlike most children of the time, she was able to attend school until age fourteen, and her four siblings. But there was tragedy in her family: her mother went insane (apparently brain-damaged by the effects of typhus), and died when Amelia was eleven years old.

In 1861, at age 24, Amelia married George Thomas, a 57-year-old widower. They had a daughter together before his death in 1869. Three years later, she married William Dyer and they had a daughter and a son, as well as several children who didn’t survive infancy. Eventually she left him.

She was a qualified nurse and did work in that field off and on for several years, but for most of her life after her first husband’s death, her primary occupation was baby farming. At first, Amelia acted only as an intermediary, taking babies from their mothers for a fee and, for another fee, handing them over to other baby farmers who, often as not, let them die. She also kept pregnant women in her home and nursed them until delivery, and the newborns were reported stillborn as often as they survived.

It isn’t known just when she started murdering the infants herself, but by 1879 she came to the attention of the authorities: four nurse-children in her care had died within two weeks of each other.

They wanted to get her for manslaughter, but there was insufficient evidence. Amelia was found guilty of criminal neglect and served the maximum, six months at hard labor. She tried to go straight, working a variety of low-paying jobs.

Inevitably, however, she returned to what she was best at.

She had learned an important lesson from her previous brush with the law: don’t bring in a doctor to sign the death certificate, don’t leave a paper trail. Instead, she started disposing of the bodies herself.

Like her colleagues she put out notices in the newspapers, advertising herself as a respectable married woman who wanted to adopt or foster a baby in exchange for money. Sometimes there was an understanding that the mother would be permitted to visit the child, or take it back once she was in a position to care for it.

However, a mother usually never saw either Amelia or child again after handing over her infant.

Amelia kept herself constantly on the move and used a number of alias names to avoid attention. At times she was receiving as many as six babies a day. Her youngest daughter, Polly, grew up helping her mother take care of the babies; for her, it was a way of life.

When she married and moved away from home, she and her husband, Arthur Palmer, ultimately set themselves up as baby farmers too, sometimes working alongside Amelia. The Palmers habitually neglected and abandoned their charges, and at least two of their babies died.

Amelia started showing signs of mental illness after her release from prison: she had violent fits, claimed to hear voices, made at least one serious suicide attempt and ultimately was admitted four times to three different asylums. Her mental illness may have genuine, possibly caused or exacerbated by her substance abuse (she was addicted to both laudanum and alcohol), or she may have been malingering: her breakdowns tended to happen after the authorities or parents seeking to reclaim their babies started poking their noses around in her business.

The end came on March 30, 1896, when a bargeman pulled the body of fifteen-month-old Helena Fry out of the River Thames. She’d been strangled with dressmaking tape, which was still tied around her neck. When the police closely examined the paper she was wrapped in, they were able to make out an address: 26 Piggotts Road, Reading.

When the authorities searched that home, they found numerous items of interest including more dressmaking tape, piles of baby clothes and pawn tickets for more clothes, and letters from mothers asking about their children. The house reeked of human decomposition.

The police set up a sting to catch Dyer, using a young woman to act as a decoy. But on April 4, the day they were supposed to meet to talk business, she found herself arrested instead and charged with the murder of Helena Fry. Shortly thereafter, her daughter and son-in-law, Arthur and Polly Palmer, were charged as accessories.

Investigators dragged the Thames and found four more bodies, three boys and one girl. All of them had white dressmaking tape knotted around their throats. Two of the victims were later identified as Harry Simmons, thirteen months, and Doris Marmon, four months. They had been killed only a few days before Amelia’s arrest, stuffed into a carpetbag together and thrown off a dock. Later, two more bodies turned up: another girl and another boy.

The investigation determined that at least 20 children had been given over to Amelia Dyer’s care in the few months prior to her being caught. During the previous year, between thirty and forty bodies had been pulled from the Thames. Almost all of them were of infants and authorities suspected most of the deaths were the work of one person.

Within a few days, Amelia had confessed everything, but denied that Polly and Arthur had any guilty knowledge of the murders, and the Palmers also maintained their innocence. Amelia confirmed that she’d dumped most of the babies’ bodies in the river. “You’ll know mine,” she said, “by the tape around their necks.”

The charges against Arthur Palmer were dropped for lack of evidence just before Amelia went to trial. Polly, anxious to save herself, became the main witness against her mother and claimed she had had no inkling of the murders of Doris Harmon and Harry Simmons, although they’d been killed in her house within a day of each other and she’d been present at the time. Her statements were contradicted by other witnesses.

Amelia was first tried for the murder of little Doris; the idea was that if she was acquitted, they could try her in the other cases one by one. She pleaded insanity, emphasizing her own mother’s madness and her own stays in insane asylums — but two of the three doctors who examined Amelia did not believe she was mentally unsound.

The jury deliberated four and a half minutes before finding her guilty.

Polly’s trial was supposed to take place on June 16, and her mother was summonsed to testify, in spite of the fact that she was due to be executed a week beforehand. Amelia appears to have really loved her daughter and was focused solely on saving her from suffering the same fate. In a letter she wrote on June 5, she said,

I was glad to see her looking so well dear child. God only knows how grieved I am to know she is suffering for no fault of her own. She did nothing, she knew nothing.

If only Amelia’s concern for her own child had extended to other people’s, too.

On the eve of her mother’s execution, the case against Polly was dropped. Amelia expressed great relief about this in her final letter to her daughter. But Polly and Arthur didn’t give up baby farming and in 1898 they were caught after they abandoned a (living) baby girl on a train.

On the scaffold, when asked for a last statement, Amelia answered, “I have nothing to say.” She was hanged at 9:00 a.m.

In the aftermath of her trial and execution, Parliament enacted more laws in order to protect helpless infants from suffering the same fate as Amelia’s nurse-children. Nevertheless, during the next ten years, three more baby farmers would suffer the ultimate penalty for infanticide.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,England,Execution,Guest Writers,Hanged,History,Infamous,Murder,Other Voices,Women

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1692: Bridget Bishop, the first Salem witch hanging

5 comments June 10th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1692, the pious folk of Salem, Mass., hanged their first witch.

Local bawd Bridget Bishop, pushing 60 and onto her third husband, was a natural target for the emergent civic insanity.

She liked living it up down at the tavern with a red bodice and the occasional game of shuffleboard. When she entered the courtroom, all the little brats with the sorcery stories (strangers to the accused before all this started) fell down and howled. When the Salem goodwives were tasked with groping her for bodily disfigurements that might be a witches’ mark, they

discovered a preternathurall Excresence of flesh between the pudendum and Anus much like to Tetts & not usuall in women

Bishop was obstinate in repelling the charges against her, even uppity enough to question her persecutors’ categorical assumptions.

I am innocent I know nothing of it I am no witch I know not what a witch is.

(Both the above excerpts can be found in the proceedings against Bishop — and other witchcraft defendants — lodged here.)

The local respectable citizens certainly weren’t about to entertain any wisecracking about the whole “witch” construct from the likes of Bishop. (She’d already been accused once before, in 1680.) In Puritan Bible-basher Cotton Mather’s embarrassing 1693 defense of the proceedings, he’s got Bishop’s WMDsdaemonic influences confidently sussed out.

There was little Occasion to prove the Witchcraft, it being Evident and Notorious to all Beholders. Now to fix the Witchcraft on the Prisoner at the Bar, the first thing used, was the Testimony of the Bewitched; whereof several Testify’d, That the Shape of the Prisoner did oftentimes very grievously pinch them, choak them, Bite them, and Afflict them; urging them to write their Names in a Book, which the said Spectre called, Ours. One of them did further Testify, that it was the Shape of this Prisoner, with another, which one Day took her from her Wheel, and carrying her to the River side, threatned there to Drown her, if she did not Sign to the Book mentioned: which yet she refused. Others of them did also Testify, that the said Shape did in her Threats brag to them that she had been the Death of sundry persons, then by her Named; that she had Ridden a man then likewise Named. Another Testify’d the Apparition of Ghosts unto the Spectre of Bishop, crying out, You Murdered us! About the Truth whereof, there was in the matter of Fact but too much Suspicion.

With this kind of slam-dunk evidence, Puritan New England wasn’t the sort of place to suffer a condemned enchantress a lot of dilatory appeals. Victims demanded closure, and two days after Bridget Bishop heard her sentence, she was strung up at Salem’s aptly named Gallows Hill.

There is at this point in the timeline of the Salem hysteria a slight pause in the proceedings as, having crossed the Rubicon and actually begun stretching necks, colonial elites consulted one another as regards the unfolding tragedy (and in the case of one of the judges, resigned).

The remainder finding themselves still committed to the crazy, Salem fired up its witch trials in earnest at the end of the month and greased the hanging rope for 18 more noosings, plus the nasty pressing to death of Giles Corey, over the months ahead.

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Entry Filed under: 17th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Innocent Bystanders,Massachusetts,Milestones,Popular Culture,Public Executions,USA,Witchcraft,Women,Wrongful Executions

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1942: The village of Lidice, for the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich

19 comments June 10th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1942, the Germans visited upon the Czechoslovakian village of Lidice one of the most notorious butcheries of World War II: the physical destruction of the town, and the execution of most of the adult population, in revenge for the assassination of Reichsprotektor Reinhard Heydrich.

Heydrich had power of life and death in Nazi-occupied Bohemia and Moravia, and did not scruple to use it.

“The Hangman of Prague” was no mere functionary, but a Nazi grand wizard from way back, who’d had a hand in the Third Reich’s most terrifying greatest hits — the Night of the Long Knives, Kristallnacht. Just four months before this date, Heydrich had chaired the Wannsee Conference.* (Watch Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich ride herd over a gaggle of bureaucrats to get the Final Solution up and running in Conspiracy.) Hitler called him his “man with the iron heart.”

So he was a natural target for the Czechoslovakian army-in-exile and their British handlers, made more so by his lordly disdain for common-sense security safeguards.

Zipping along a predictable route in an open car, he was a sitting duck for a hit squad, who gave the Nazi bastard a mortal shrapnel wound from a grenade that had him lingering painfully at death’s door for several days before he finally died of blood poisoning.

The 1964 Czechoslovakian film Atentat (“Assassination”) chronicles the plot to kill Heydrich and its aftermath.

For this effrontery, Czechoslovakians would pay a dreadful price.

Naturally, the Nazis mercilessly hunted down and slaughtered those with any connection to the plot.

But the Reich also exacted collective reprisals to make plain that the entire “protectorate” could be considered hostage against such plots in the future.

Special transports of Jews marked “Attentat auf Heydrich” were shipped to the camps, and 152 were executed on the day Heydrich succumbed. But then, the Nazis were brutalizing Jews anyway. Something more headline-grabbing would be needed.

Enter Lidice.

After gaudy funerals for the slain Reichsprotektor, the Reich settled upon the small town of Lidice north of Prague — trumping up a few connections to resistance to “justify” collective punishment.

On this date, German troops stormed it, summarily executed all the men and boys** old enough to bear arms and a fair number of women, deported the others, and then physically destroyed and buried the town.

Lidice was intended as a demonstration — boldly published to the world as proof against a repeat,† it became the byword of Nazi cruelty towards subject nations. Though not by quantitative standards the greatest crime of the occupation, not even the greatest crime in reprisal for Heydrich, its three syllables distill all the evil of Hitler’s conquest for Czechoslovakia.

Lidice did live, and does yet, as an emblem par excellence those terrible years.

Less alive: Heydrich’s right-hand man Karl Hermann Frank, who was hanged in Prague after the war for engineering this monstrous crime. Those survivors of Lidice able to make the trip enjoyed priority seating.

* Heydrich’s aide at the Wannsee Conference, and taker of cleaned-up minutes, was Mr. Banality of Evil himself, Adolf Eichmann.

** Only three men of Lidice survived the destruction: two who were in England at that time, and one who was imprisoned in Prague for killing his son. The sentence for this crime, it turned out, was life.

† An effective proof — the calculated wholesale slaughter apparently did cool both the conquered populace and the enemies of Germany on enthusiasm for further assassinations.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Borderline "Executions",Capital Punishment,Children,Chosen by Lot,Cycle of Violence,Czechoslovakia,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Germany,History,Hostages,Innocent Bystanders,Known But To God,Language,Martyrs,Mass Executions,No Formal Charge,Occupation and Colonialism,Popular Culture,Power,Public Executions,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Shot,Summary Executions,Wartime Executions,Wrongful Executions

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