1884: Seven anarchists of La Mano Negra

Add comment June 14th, 2019 Headsman

On this date in 1884, seven alleged terrorists of the Black Hand* were garroted in Jerez (Xeres), Spain.

This frightening organization was announced to the public via Spanish police discovery of documents purporting to outline their murderous perfidy and conveniently justifying a crackdown on restive Andalusia, then plagued (so the crown saw it) with a burgeoning labor movement.

Whether La Mano Negra (English Wikipedia entry | Spanish) truly existed as an organization has been subject to debate from that day to this, but anarchist worker militants had undoubtedly moved in 1881-82 towards overtly violent confrontation with landowners — bread riots during an agricultural crisis paired with robbery and arson. It was by no means merely adventurism. A Madrid newspaper reporting the sack of a bakery saw for the starving looters only three options: “O la limosna, o el robo, o la muerte” … alms, theft, or death.

Three thousand or more of protesting workers would be arrested in those months, and bound over to be used at the discretion of torturers; in the main, they affiliated to the labor union FTRE rather than anything so exotic as a Black Hand. But several murders that took place during or at least proximate to the Andalusian labor disturbances would be attributed to that sinister appendage and bring seven men controversially to execution in Jerez’s market squae on June 14, 1884.

As for others made to prefer alms or theft, hundreds were burdened with judicial penalties of various sorts and deported to Spanish colonies. A successful clemency campaign in the early 1900s reversed a number of those sentences, finally permitting these anarchists or “anarchists” to return to Spanish soil.

* This fell moniker refers to a number of distinct movements with a violent cast of mind sufficient to expose them to the predations of this very blog — notably, the Serbian terrorists who assassinated Archduke Ferdinand

The successors of the Jerez Black Hand that is the subject of this post also paid their own subsequent notable visit to the scaffold in the 1890s.

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1797: Thomas Starr, penknife murderer

Add comment June 14th, 2018 Headsman

“Sermon preached at Haddam [Connecticut], June 14, 1797. On the day of the Execution of Thomas Starr, condemned for the murder of his kinsman Samuel Cornwell by seven wounds given him, by a penknife, in the trunk of his body, July 26th, 1796, of which he languished a few days and died; with a sketch of the life and character of said Starr,” by Enoch Huntington, pastor of the First Church of Christ of Middletown, Connecticut.


Also available online here.

The good minister was brother to the late governor of the state, and (eventually) maternal grandfather to abolitionist William Huntington Russell, co-founder of famed Yale secret society Skull and Bones. Russell was a personal friend of anti-slavery militant John Brown and received the honorary rank of Major General for his service organizing the Connecticut militia for the Civil War.

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Feast Day of Rufinus and Valerius

Add comment June 14th, 2017 Headsman

Rufinus and Valerius, Roman tax collectors who converted to Christianity and were martyred at Soissons during the Diocletian persecution in 287, are honored by the Roman martyrology on this date.

They’re saints of a lesser firmament, although Rufinus has a spot of archaeological distinction as the intercessor honored on the Darenth Bowl, a beautiful fifth-century glass artifact that somehow survived to us intact. (Note, however, that there are 11 saints Rufinus.)

They figure indirectly in one of the martyrology’s recurrent themes, the Saul-like conversion of Roman persecutors to the Christian faith: Rufinus and Valerius were held to have been martyred by the Roman prefect Rictius Varus,* who presents as a recurrent tormenter of Christians and in the martyrology arrives to dispatch our taxmen straightaway after doing the same to future Shakespeare monologue superstars Crispin and Crispinian.

In fact, Rictius Varus figures in no fewer than nine late third century martyrologies, compassing 20+ champions of the faith … the last of whom was the great Saint Lucy who is said to have induced Varus to embrace the same persecution and suffer martyrdom right along with her.

* Sometimes rendered Rictiovarus or Rixiovarus. He is no relation to the Varus from the Battle of Teutoburg Forest: that (in)famous man‘s cognomen was not Varus, but Quinctilius.

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1816: Philip Street

Add comment June 14th, 2016 Headsman

Two centuries ago today, a burglar named Philip Street hanged at London’s Newgate Gaol.

Though his were merely property crimes — which were still capital offenses at the time — Street was such a prolific burglar that the Old Bailey, faced with a stack of seven victims ready to pursue their cases against him, got a death sentence, and then a second for insurance, and paid the remaining five prosecutors to go away.

Street did enjoy some measure of representation: the barrister John Adolphus — whose subsequent representation of the likes of the Cato Street conspirators, John Thurtell and Benjamin Courvoisier all speak better to his prominence than his acumen — mounted the less than compelling technical objection that the court’s documents identified Street’s victim the Earl of Rosebery “as an Esquire, and commonly called a Lord, because in reality he was a Peer of the Realm, and therefore non constat that he an Esquire; and thefore the prisoner could not be convicted on such an indictment” — just the sort of lame cavil that would lead John Stuart Mill to lament in 1820 that “not one-half only but three-fourths at least of [a lawyer’s] business is deception.”

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1662: Sir Henry Vane, Commonwealth parliamentarian

8 comments June 14th, 2015 Headsman

On this date in 1662, Parliamentarian Sir Henry Vane the Younger was beheaded on Tower Hill for his service of Oliver Cromwell‘s Protectorate.

Adopting Puritan beliefs to the irritation of his politically connected father,* Vane emigrated to that sect’s Massachusetts colony and was elected governor at the ripe old age of 23, backed by the faction forming around religious dissident Anne Hutchinson.

He served for less than a year before the anti-Hutchinson side took the office from him and he, Vane, sailed for the mother country — but even in his short tenure the young gentleman left a mark in New England sufficient for a statue in the Boston Public Library:

  • He was “an instrument in the hand of God for procuring” Rhode Island from Indians;
  • He signed the legislation creating the “New College” eventually to become Harvard;
  • And, he launched the Pequot War

Back in Old England, the Young Vane’s energy served the Roundheads well during the English Civil War. Though never a soldier, he rose to the Republicans’ statum of political leadership, and moved the money and legislation that loosed Cromwell’s armies.

Vane served on the Parliament’s wartime military counsel, the Committee of Safety and — after Vane himself played a crucial diplomatic role bringing the Scots into the fight** — on its successor body, the Committee of Both Kingdoms. Vane’s experience in the New World also gave him a bent for religious liberty that was unusually staunch for his time, and made him a key figure of the church “Independents”, one of the Interregnum’s dominant factions.

John Milton, the great literary champion of the Commonwealth, celebrated Vane in verse (1652):

VANE, young in years, but in sage counsel old,
Than whom a better senator ne’er held
The helm of Rome, when gowns, not arms, repelled
he fierce Epirot and the African bold,
Whether to settle peace, or to unfold
The drift of hollow states hard to be spelled;
Then to advise how war may best, upheld,
Move by her two main nerves, iron and gold,
In all her equipage; besides, to know;
Both spiritual power and civil, what each means,
What severs each, thou hast learned, which few have done.
he bounds of either sword to thee we owe:
Therefore on thy firm hand Religion leans
In peace, and reckons thee her eldest son.

Vane’s sage counsel — and what he would later describe as “my tenderness of blood”† — made him unwilling to participate in the execution of King Charles: it was as a spectator and not an M.P. that he watched Parliament try the deposed sovereign. But whatever his scruples on regicide he remained an enthusiastic legate of the state and wheeler-dealer of the Rump Parliament.

This parliament had an active‡ four-year run. Few were more active in it than Vane, one of its leading figures until the very day Oliver Cromwell forcibly dissolved the body — an act, Vane protested, “against morality and common sense,” prompting the exasperated Lord Protector to sputter, “Sir Harry Vane, sir Harry Vane — the Lord deliver me from sir Harry Vane!” Vane, aware that the increasingly disaffected army might strike Parliament at any time, had before Cromwell’s intervention been attempting to enact electoral legislation whose intended correction of misrepresentative parliamentary allotments anticipated the Great Reform Act by 180 years.

After April 20 1653, Vane’s political career was essentially done bar a momentary recrudescence when the old Rump Parliament was briefly retrieved from mothballs after Cromwell’s death. He diverted himself with the retired statesman’s traditional amusement, the creation of manifestos.

He might have been better served to resume his association with the colonies. When the Stuarts returned in 1660, and notwithstanding our man’s distaste for the regicide, Vane was exempted by name from the amnesty of the Indemnity and Oblivion Act.

His was a close case; the “Convention Parliament” tasked with re-inviting the exiled king initially sought, and Charles granted, clemency for Vane. But the successor “Cavalier Parliament”, more ultra-royalist than its antecedent, decided it had not had done with Sir Henry Vane the Younger, who had not allowed house arrest to deter him from continuing to pop off on the political primacy of Parliament and the validity of the late beheaded ex-king’s overthrow. In his pamphlet “The People’s Case Stated”, Vane avers,

The Coercive, or, Executive Power is placed in one Person, under the Name and Style of a King, to be put forth not by his own, single, personal command, but by the signification of his Will and Pleasure, as the Will of the whole State, in and by his Courts and Justice, and stated publick Councils and Judicatures, agreed on for that purpose, between him and his People, in their Parliamentary Assemblies.

The Will of the whole State, thus signified, the law itself prefers before the personal Will of the King, in distinction from the law, and makes the one binding, the other not.

This idea had legs, even though Charles I (“a subject and a sovereign are clean different things”) had given his head to reject it. The Cavalier Parliament made him answer charges of treason “for compassing the death of King Charles the 2nd, and intending to change the kingly government of this nation”: like most such cases, the verdict was ordained by the charge, no matter how eloquently Vane sustained himself.

He was granted the gentleman’s favor of beheading rather than the drawing-and-quartering torture that true regicides endured.

Rightly anticipating that the Will of the King would not permit him to address the crowd from the scaffold — a battery of drummers and trumpeters repeatedly interrupted his intended address, and finally the sheriff tore the notes from Vane’s hands§ — Vane had wisely given to friends some copies of the speech he intended to deliver. They saw it posthumously published.

There are freely available public-domain biographies of Henry Vane here, here, and here.

* Vane’s father, Henry the Elder, was noted among other things for the damning evidence given against the Earl of Strafford by Henry the Elder’s personal notes, which were communicated to Strafford’s enemies by Henry the Younger and proved instrumental in causing Strafford’s execution. Upon attaining that Earldom, Strafford “would needs in that patent have a new creation of a barony, and was made baron of Raby, a house belonging to sir Henry Vane, and an honour he made account should belong to him too; which was an act of the most unnecessary provocation (though he contemned the man with marvellous scorn) that I have known, and I believe was the loss of his head.”

** The “Solemn League and Covenant” that in the 1640s sealed the alliance between English Puritans and Scottish Presbyterians with an (apparent) pledge to privilege Presbyterianism on the entire island, north and south. Cromwell failed to do this after the Civil War, driving Presbyterians into the arms of the royalists; then, Charles II also failed to do it after the Restoration, driving the truest believers to embrace martyrdom. It was the Solemn League and Covenant that gave these martyrs their appellation: the Covenanters.

† In a parliamentary speech that nevertheless vindicates the regicide: “If you be not now satisfied with this business, you will put a strange construction upon that action, and upon all that has been done by the generals and soldiers. If you, here, will now doubt this right to be in you, you draw the guilt upon the body of the whole nation … It will be questioned whether that was an act of justice or murder.”

“If you be minded to resort to the old government, you are not too many steps from the old family,” Vane presciently observed in this same address for the benefit of those who still pined for a return to monarchy. “They will be too hard for you, if that government be restored.

‡ One product of the Rump Parliament of interest for these pages was the Adultery Act of 1650: “in case any married woman shall … be carnally known by any man (other them her Husband) (except in Case of Ravishment) and of such offence or offences shall be convicted as aforesaid by confession or otherwise, every such Offence and Offences shall be and is hereby adjudged Felony: and every person, as well the man as the woman, offending therein, and confessing the same, or being thereof convicted by verdict upon Indictment or Presentment as aforesaid, shall suffer death as in case of Felony, without benefit of Clergy.”

§ Vane handled his executioners’ “very indecent” nastiness with such grace that Bishop Gilbert Burnet later remarked that “it was generally thought, the government had lost more than it had gained by his death.”

Indeed, Burnet wrote, this had become true of executing regicides in general.

tho’ the Regicides were at that time odious beyond all expression, and the trials and executions of the first that suffered were run to by vast crouds, and all people seemed pleased with the sight, yet the odiousness of the crime grew at last to be so much flatten’d by the frequent executions, and most of those who suffered dying with much firmness and shew of piety, justifying all they had done, not without a seeming joy for their suffering on that account, that the King was advised not to proceed farther.

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1897: Choka Ebin, by his own relatives

Add comment June 14th, 2013 Meaghan

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

On this day in 1897, Choka Ebin (Eben), a full-blooded Creek Indian, was executed in Perry, Oklahoma for the murder of Laura Anthony. He’d killed her just three weeks before, on May 23, and was arrested that same day. The law required Ebin’s own tribe to try and sentence him, and his own nearest kin to perform the execution — a precaution against the execution initiating a blood feud.

Ebin remained free between his conviction and his execution. He was supposed to die on June 4, but sent word that he was too sick to ride to town, and got a ten-day reprieve. On June 14 he dutifully appeared and turned himself in to the authorities.

He was placed on his knees on a chair, and his father and brother, Riley and Palko, took positions twelve paces back and fired their Winchester rifles.

The bullets hit the target dead center: shot in the heart, Ebin died within seconds. Riley and Palko then put his body in a coffin and took it home to bury. (Here’s a short contemporary newspaper blurb in a pdf)

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1381: Simon of Sudbury and Robert Hales during Wat Tyler’s peasant rebellion

5 comments June 14th, 2011 Headsman

On this date in 1381, a mob’s summary execution on Tower Hill of some nobby English lords marked the acme of that country’s most noteworthy peasant revolt.

The trigger for the revolt was an onerous poll tax levied to finance the realm’s escapades in the Hundred Years’ War, but as Barbara Tuchman notes,

the fundamental grievance was the bonds of villeinage and the lack of legal and political rights. Villeins could not plead in court against their lord, no one spoke for them in Parliament, they were bound by duties of servitude which they had no way to break except by forcibly obtaining a change of the rules. That was the object of the insurrection, and of the march on the capital that began from Canterbury.

Late medieval England was in the throes of economic, and therefore social transformation.

Manorial lords’ traditional power over their peasants had become untenable for a labor pool depleted by the Black Death, survivors of which found themselves consequently in-demand and suddenly blessed with leverage. As one chronicler recorded,

There was so marked a shortage of labourers and workmen of every kind in that period that more than a third of the land in the whole realm was left idle. All the labourers, skilled or unskilled, were so carried away by the spirit of revolt that neither King, nor law, nor justice, could restrain them. … The entire population, or the greater part of it, has become even more depraved… more ready to indulge in evil and sinfulness.

Rentiers put a forceful kibosh on “sinfulness” like rising wages and labor mobility, legislating backwards feudal rights and pre-plague wage levels.

Who Then Was The Gentleman?

It was a ground fertile for insurrectionary sentiment, like the class-warfare sermon of subversive Lollard preacher John Ball:

When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then the gentleman? From the beginning all men by nature were created alike, and our bondage or servitude came in by the unjust oppression of naughty men. For if God would have had any bondmen from the beginning, he would have appointed who should be bond, and who free. And therefore I exhort you to consider that now the time is come, appointed to us by God, in which ye may (if ye will) cast off the yoke of bondage, and recover liberty.

This cry for justice anticipated the Levellers by almost three centuries.

Poll Position

But these 14th century downtrodden had some rough levelling of their own in mind, and when the poll tax set spark to tinder, the conflagration spread with terrifying rapidity.

[T]here were some that desired nothing but riches and the utter destruction of the noblemen and to have London robbed and pilled; that was the principal matter of their beginning, the which they well shewed; for as soon as the Tower gate opened and that the king was issued out with his two brethren and the earl of Salisbury, the earl of Warwick, the earl of Oxford, sir Robert of Namur, the lord of Vertaing, the lord Gommegnies and divers other, then Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball and more than four hundred entered into the Tower and brake up chamber after chamber …

These guys were after, above all, John of Gaunt,* the Dick Cheney of 14th century England right down to the malevolent name and underwhelming military achievements: the throne at this time held the posterior of 14-year-old (in 1381) Richard II, and the widely reviled uncle John ran (and freely looted) the realm with a council of loathsome optimates.

London Calling

Luckily for John, he happened to be off at the Scottish frontier when the Peasants’ Revolt rolled into London; the mob settled for destroying his opulent Savoy Palace on June 13.

The next day, it rampaged through the Tower of London

… and at last found the archbishop of Canterbury, called Simon, a valiant man and a wise, and chief chancellor of England, and a little before he had said mass before the king. These gluttons took him and strake off his head, and also they beheaded the lord of Saint John’s and a friar minor, master in medicine, pertaining to the duke of Lancaster, they slew him in despite of his master, and a sergeant at arms called John Leg; and these four heads were set on four long spears and they made them to be borne before them through the streets of London and at last set them a-high on London bridge, as though they had been traitors to the king and to the realm.

Simon’s severed, and incredibly well-preserved, skull has been resident in a cubby at St. Gregory’s Church of Sudbury for lo these six hundred years. It made news recently when it was retrieved for a CT scan to (among other things) reconstruct Simon’s real-life appearance.

Right, these executed-today guys.

Simon of Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor of England, and Robert Hailes, Lord High Treasurer, neatly concentrated in their persons the political, financial, and religious power exercised by “the unjust oppression of naughty men.”

Still better, they were the advisors most directly connected to the poll tax. As a reward, they got their polls axed.

This was no mere provincial riot. A lower-class revolt had massed an overwhelming force in the very capital of the kingdom, with most of the main government ministers trapped therein — holed up and inconclusively debating one another about how to get out of this jam. And the movement aimed itself at the conquest of power: Tuchman (citing Benedictine chronicler Thomas Walsingham) says that rebel leader Wat Tyler was anticipated that “in four days’ time all the laws of England would be issuing from his mouth.”


Hey, it’s Baldrick!

In the end, the last thing between history and King Wat — and, if you’re willing to dream an anachronistic dream, a Commune of London — was the peasantry’s foolhardy reverence for the person of the pimply king.

Foreshadowing a later era’s “if only the tsar knew” naivete, the rebels who thirsted for the blood of Richard’s advisors fancied the king their champion. Young and handsome; regal; charismatic; and plausibly not implicated in the villeins’ grievances … you can understand why they thought that. But disarmed thereby of the ruthlessness necessary to strike him, Wat Tyler’s band instead went the way of the typical peasant rising.

Richard the Lionheart

The king’s own nerves were steel in this moment, when a lesser adolescent would have quailed from the perilous task of safeguarding the divinely ordained oligarchy with his own person. Richard was, at this point, still in his minority: other men took the country’s decisions in their own hands. Richard would one day have to fight them for his own kingly rights; but, on the evidence of this crisis, he had already grown up, and fast.

Perhaps reasoning that royalty is the best shroud, Richard invited the rebels out to Smithfield the very next day, June 15. When the royal teenager was in personal parley with Tyler, the king’s buddy William Walworth got into a scrape with the peasant and

gave him a deep cut on the neck, and then a great cut on the head. And during this scuffle one of the King’s household drew his sword, and ran Watt two or three times through the body, mortally wounding him. And he spurred his horse, crying to the commons to avenge him, and the horse carried him some four score paces, and then he fell to the ground half dead. …

when the commons saw that their chieftain, Watt Tyler, was dead in such a manner, they fell to the ground there among the wheat, like beaten men, imploring the King for mercy for their misdeeds.

(This source says that Tyler was retrieved from hospital for a summary execution of his own that same day. Others, such as Froissart, indicate that he died straightway from the wounds he suffered in the fray.)

Brazenly wielding the dread sovereign power over the minds of his subjects, Richard braved death by riding unprotected towards their lines, styling himself their “captain,” commanding their obedience. Peasant archers and pikemen who on that day might have turned English history on its head instead lowered their weapons and submitted themselves.

Though the ensuing bloodbath was a bit less wholesale than the one attending France’s recent Jacquerie, it went rough for the leaders, and concessions the king had made the rank and file vanished along with the danger to his crown. “Villeins ye are,” he would later tell a delegation of petitioners imploring him to effect his pledge to abolish serfdom, “and villeins ye shall remain.”

* John of Gaunt also kind of got the last laugh out of those tumultuous years: though John brokered compromises between the king and his rival nobles, John’s son was one of those rival nobles. After dad’s death, that young man overthrew Richard and established the Lancastrian dynasty as King Henry IV.

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1441: Corrado Trinci, Lord of Foligno

1 comment June 14th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1441, Corrado Trinci was executed in Foligno.

Once the hereditary lord of that venerable town,* Trinci (English Wikipedia page | Italian), had turned tetchy with his Guelph family’s onetime papal patrons and suffered the consequences.

As the proper captain of an Italian city-state in the 15th century, Trinci had taken a few spins around the wheel of fortune in battle with his neighbors. He kicked off his reign in operatically sanguinary style when a neighboring town‘s castellan murdered Trinci’s brothers, suspecting one of them of adultery with his wife. Trinci revenged himself by sacking Nocera Umbra, which still holds a civic relay race (Italian link) commemorating the occasion.

Trinci didn’t fare as well when it came to picking on someone his own size.

For the next generation, Trinci would do the Machiavellian dance characteristic of his time and station — by turns allied with, at war with, or plotting with the papacy, Condottiero Francesco Sforza, the archbishop of Florence, and miscellaneous other peninsular neighbors and rivals. He was down. He was back up. He was beaten. He fought back. Etc.

Trinci pushed the wheel of fortune one turn too far by rebelling (again) against papal authority in the mid-1430s. His march on the Vatican-controlled Duchy of Spoleto was an initial success —

Corrado brought to Foligno four hundred youths of Spoleto, the standard of Spoleto, the chains, the locks from the city gates, the seal, and the clapper from the great bell of the commune.

Durante Dorio, as quoted and translated by Sergio Bertelli

That was in 1436. By 1439, Foligno itself (with Trinci inside it) had capitulated to a papal siege. Spoleto really wanted its clapper back.

Trinci was imprisoned with his family, and after a couple years’ languishing, put to death on this date. While both the English and Italian Wikipedia entries currently assert that he was strangled, the principal source for this gentleman’s biography, the freely-available Istoria della Famiglia Trinci by Durante Dorio, flatly asserts that the washed-up brawler was dispatched by decapitato.

By whatever method Corrado laid down his life, he retired with it not only the fame of his family but its Lordship of Foligno. The title fell extinct: Foligno became part of the Papal States and remain so right up to Italy’s 19th century unification.

* When next in central Italy, be sure to visit the lovely Palazzo Trinci. Corrado commissioned the Ottaviano Nelli frescoes in the chapel.


(cc) image from http://www.flickr.com/photos/bramhall/3566795885/

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2008: Anandrao Sainu Koram, Naxalite informer

Add comment June 14th, 2009 Headsman

Last year on this date, India’s Maoist “Naxalites” publicly beheaded a former comrade who had surrendered and collaborated with police.

Naxalites.

The incident that occurred in village Murgaon of Dhanora sub district has the entire Maoist-affected region in the grip of tension because of the manner in which the reprisal has been carried out.

A group of 40 to 50 Maoists went to the village Saturday night, called out Anandrao Sainu Koram from his house, tied him to a tree and beheaded him in full view of the villagers who had gathered at the spot, deputy superintendent of police Anant Rokde said Sunday.

“They also warned Anandrao’s colleague Shantaram Gawde, who too had surrendered to the police in April this year along with three others, that he would meet the same fate if he did not desist from acting as an informer,” Rokde told IANS on the basis of the complaint lodged by Anandrao’s wife.

The 23-year-old Koram was reportedly the fourth surrendered Naxalite slain by insurgents in as many months of the long-running and escalating conflict … which, needless to say, has been dire for civilians.

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1856: Dr. William Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner

4 comments June 14th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1856, the Victorian poisoner William Palmer stepped on the scaffold at Stafford prison, eyed the trap suspiciously, and asked, “are you sure it’s safe?”

It wasn’t.

One of the more notorious characters of 19th century crime, Palmer hanged for poisoning a gambling buddy with strychnine, but he was widely thought to have left many more bodies in the ground. The philandering physician certainly had a knack for having people turn up suddenly dead around him:

  • The last four of his five legitimate children;
  • His illegitimate child;
  • Two people to whom he owed money;
  • His mother-in-law;
  • His wife (after Palmer took out insurance on her);
  • His brother (ditto);
  • And John Parsons Cook, whom Palmer was finally convicted of killing.

Evidence against Palmer was completely circumstantial, the public mood was completely prejudicial, and the case was completely sensational. It didn’t help Palmer’s cause that future Lord Chief Justice Sir Alexander Cockburn was on the case, inflicting a withering cross on the defendant. Neither did it help his cause as much as one might think having the victim’s body come up negative for any lethal dose of poison. Robert Graves wrote a book about the case, and reckoned it a likely frame-up. Most other popular recollections — like Madame Tussaud’s, where Palmer stood until 1979 — have figured him for the same cold-blooded poisoner his public thought him. Gambling debts on the verge of burying him afforded him very plausible motivation (Cook was supposedly killed because Palmer had fraudulently borrowed a few hundred pounds against his name and was about to be found out).

How quickly “crimes of the decade” fade away. Palmer was the O.J. Simpson of the 1850’s, although his spell in the public eye was only a few months. Parliament had to intervene to move his case from Staffordshire to London for want of an unprejudiced jury; 35,000 people crammed the streets overnight in the rain to watch him swing; and time was you could get yourself the Unabridged Edition of The Times‘ minute-by-minute report on the Palmer trial or bone up on the case in the 19th century’s legal tomes, to say nothing of the requisite (and in this case, poetic) broadsheet and enough cultural ejecta to stock a museum exhibit.

Palmer earned a passing name check in Sherlock Holmes — “When a doctor does go wrong he is the first of criminals. He has nerve and he has knowledge.” His case is supposed to be the source of the pub idiom “what’s your poison?”

Legend — scurrilous, of course — has it that his hometown of Rugeley even petitioned the government to change its name for fear of never escaping its association, but that the change would only be permitted if the town named itself after the Prime Minister: Lord Palmerston. Rugeley it remains.

* Notably, Palmer was convicted of poisoning in the face of exculpatory toxicology evidence. He denied the poisoning to the end.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Doctors,England,Execution,Famous Last Words,Gallows Humor,Hanged,Language,Murder,Notable Participants,Popular Culture,Public Executions,Wrongful Executions

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