1939: Robert Nixon, Richard Wright inspiration

Add comment June 16th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1939, Illinois electrocuted Robert Nixon for bashing Florence Johnson to death with a brick as he burgled her Chicago home.*


The Chicago Tribune‘s Family Circus-esque May 28, 1938 illustration of the crime scene.

Nixon’s fingerprints would also link him to three previous rape-murders in California; separately, he admitted raping and killing Illinois nursing student Anna Kuchta in 1937, although he would also argue that Chicago police tortured the confessions from his lips.

Crudely nicknamed the “Brick Moron”, Nixon was vilified in shockingly racist terms by a hostile press.

This Chicago Tribune article is one of the worst exemplars and is only the start of a much longer piece in the same vein but even straight-news bulletins routinely went with a casual “savage colored rapist” label. His possible developmental disability (“moron” …) was generally cast not as any sort of mitigating consideration but as the indicator of a superpredator: “It has been demonstrated here that nothing can be done with Robert Nixon,” the sheriff of the Louisiana town where he grew up wrote to Chicago. “Only death can cure him.”

Richard Wright allegedly mined the commentary on Nixon to inform his classic novel Native Son, which hit print the next year … and sees its lead character Bigger Thomas die in the Illinois electric chair.

* It was supposed to be a triple execution but late reprieves spared Steve Cygan and Charles Price, both murderers in unrelated cases.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,History,Illinois,Murder,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Theft,USA

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1741: Five “inferior Agents” of the plot to burn New York

Add comment June 16th, 2016 Headsman

On this date in 1714, “the Negroes Cato (Cowley’s) Fortune (Vanderspeigle’s) Cato alias Toby, Ben and Quash, were executed according to their respective Sentences.”

That’s the entirety of the text in Daniel Horsmanden‘s compenium to describe a quintuple burning of rebel slaves in New York, and as the dismissive treatment implies this was an occasion of little moment within the colony’s 1741 hunt for a great slave conspiracy.

We have by this point clearly reached the point in the story at which the trials feed on themselves.

To recall the action to this point: a series of fires in March and April had inflamed a popular conviction that servile arsonists were afoot, until “Many people had such terrible apprehensions … that several negroes (and many had been assisting at the fire at the storehouse, and many perhaps that only seemed to be so) who were met in the streets, after the alarm of their rising, were hurried away to jail.”

New Yorkers, to their partial credit, did not put these suspected blacks all to lynch law, but it is an open question whether the judicial proceedings extended to the 34 people eventually executed in the affair really uncovered any plot — or merely hammered the existing public paranoia into specious evidence.

Either way, the breakthrough in the law’s eyes was the deposition given on April 22nd by Mary Burton, a young and disgruntled servant, that her master and mistress, their boarder, and three slaves (and known thieves) “used to meet frequently at her Master’s House, and that she has heard them (the Negroes) talk frequently of burning the Fort; and that they would go down to the Fly and burn the whole Town: and that her Master and Mistress said, they would aid and assist them as much as they could.”

Burton left herself some wiggle room for the purges she might have guessed might follow by mentioning up to “Twenty or Thirty Negroes at one Time in her Master’s House” but she only identified by name here six specific people. And by this point in our story, mid-June, they are dead every one of the six: the slaves Caesar, Prince and Cuffee; her master John Hughson, his wife Sarah, and their Irish boarder Peggy Kerry.

Whether or not they were rightly accused or fairly prosecuted, one could easily imagine a world where their deaths are the end of the story.

But in our world, the dimensions and the participants of the plot so-called were already ballooning. Information wrung out by investigators who were by now convinced of the plot’s existence — from men at the stake teased with the prospect of pardon; from jailhouse snitches; and more from Mary Burton herself, who would repeatedly appear in Horsmanden’s pages to light the next passage forward — had already brought to the stakes another batch of slaves, on June 9.

This group had previously been stitched up thanks in part to a slave named Sawney or Sandy who gave evidence against them under the threat of being prosecuted with them. After five were condemned, one of their company, a slave named Jack,* dodged execution by offering the judges a copious affidavit confirming Sawney’s evidence and adding still more names to the plot.

These men’s charges would prove instrumental in the execution of June 16 — almost a sideshow as compared to the arc of the arson panic as a whole, but a melodrama that meant death for the blood offerings by which Sawney and Jack bought their lives.

  • Toby or Cato (Provoost’s) enters the documentary record on June 9, from the evidence that the condemned Jack gives while his four friends are burning to death.
  • Ben (Captain Marshall’s) and Quash (Rutger’s) appear as a unit in that same evidence of Jack’s, principal fellows in Hughson’s conspiracy in a scene that Jack coyly lays at a moment his fellow-witness Mary Burton “was above making a Bed.” In it, Ben

    said, he could find a Gun, Shot and Powder, at his Master’s House: That his Master did not watch him, he could go into every Room: Ben asked Quash, What will you stand for? He said, he did not care what he stood for, or should be, but he could kill Three, Four, Five White Men before Night.

    That Quash said, he could get two half Dozen of Knives in Papers, three or four Swords; and that he would set his Master’s House on fire, and when he had done that, he would come abroad to fight.

  • Cato (Cowley’s) and Fortune (Vanderspiegle’s) enter the paper trail on May 25, when they are named by Sandy. Both were arrested as a result, but we do not hear more about them for a fortnight, until Jack corroborates Sandy’s charges.

The cascade of accusations proved neatly self-affirming. Another slave named Will and bearing the winsome nickname “Ticklepitcher” was accused by Cuffee and Quack at the stake when they believed that it might save their lives. (It didn’t.) That was after Sandy had already given his evidence, but Jack, no fool, rolled Ticklepitcher too right into his (Jack’s) 40-point affidavit.**

This led Tickle himself to give evidence for the crown by naming 20 other participants in Hughson’s plot, among them Cato and Fortune. And yet another black man, named Bastian or Tom Peal, followed a similar path: first named by Mary Burton in one of her secondary examinations in May — and then confirmed in guilt by Sandy and Jack — upon his own conviction also went over to the inquisitors, “as was intimated by Somebody about the Jail he would.” Bastian named every member of the June 16 execution party save Fortune.

These, then, were the accusers presented in the June 13 trial that doomed our quintet: Mary Burton, and all the progeny of her first deposition two months before: Sandy, Jack, Ticklepitcher, Bastian, and yet two more slaves who had made themselves the same lifesaving bridge from accused to accuser.

Through their mutually corroborating — and mutually interested — evidence, the court was able to show to its satisfaction that

these stupid Wretches seduced by the Instigation of the Devil, and Hughson his Agent,† to undertake so senseless, as well as wicked an Enterprize; which must inevitably end in their own Destruction … are equally as guilty as if they themselves had devised it, by consenting to it, taking Oaths to proceed in it, and in the mean Time to keep it secret.

The jury, perhaps mindful that “[t]he Number of the Conspirators is very great … and we have still daily new Discoveries of many more” withdrew for but “a little Time” before closing this particular chapter with the preordained result. There would be yet another trial the very day after these five burned.

* Most slaves in the narrative are identified by a first name plus the possessive surname of their owner. The Jack in question belonged to a man named Comfort, so Horsmanden refers to him as Jack (Comfort’s) — in distinction from, for instance, Jack (Sleydall’s).

** No lie, Jack’s information runs to almost three full pages with 40 numbered bullets.

† Hughson’s narrative importance to the theory of a burgeoning servile rebellion will thrill the student of race in American history: “It cannot be imagined that these silly unthinking Creatures (Hughson’s black Guard) could of themselves have, and carried on so deep, so direful and destructive a Scheme, as that we have seen with our Eyes, and have heard fully proved they had prepared for us, without the Advice and Assistance of such abandoned Wretches as Hughson was.” Those are the prosecutor’s words; in sentencing, the court termed our five “inferior Agents.”

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2014: Thirteen Xinjiang terrorists

Add comment June 16th, 2015 Headsman

One year ago today, China executed as terrorists 13 separatist militants.

According to Xinhua, the 13 were condemned in 7 different cases from Aksu, Turpan and Hotan — all prefectures of the western Xinjiang region.


Xinjiang. By TUBS [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Muslim Uighurs comprise a near-majority of that province’s population, and although Xinjiang is formally an “autonomous region” many Uighurs find it not nearly autonomous enough. Going tension has fomented a separatist movement that has appeared to gain strength — or at least visibility — during the past decade, including multiple spectacular and deadly terrorist attacks as well as several riots.

“The execution of criminals involved in terrorist attacks and violent crimes answers the calls of all ethnic groups, deters criminal activities, and demonstrates the resolve of the Communist Party of China and the government in cracking down on terrorism,” a Chinese court spokesman said, speaking of three of this date’s condemned who were sentenced together for a series of attacks in Lukqun (Turpan prefecture) that slew 24 police officers.

The executions on this day were surely coordinated for their demonstrative effect, days after Chinese authorities announced a “one-year crackdown” in Xinjiang one day after two SUVs bombed a market in Ürümqi, killing 43 people and injuring over 90 others.

Notwithstanding China’s strenuous attempt to frame the “crackdown” as one targeting only terrorists, security measures have bled insensibly into a crackdown on Muslims, targeting conservative Islamic cultural markers like veiled faces. It’s a sure bet that we haven’t heard the last of this flashpoint.

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Entry Filed under: 21st Century,Capital Punishment,China,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,History,Lethal Injection,Mass Executions,Murder,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Ripped from the Headlines,Separatists,Terrorists

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1578: Ivan Pidkova, Cossack hetman

Add comment June 16th, 2014 Headsman

On this date in 1578, Cossack hetman Ivan Pidkova lost his head in Lviv.

Pidkova* — the name means “horseshoe” and alludes to the horsemanship that would be de rigueur for a Cossack leader — had risen by his aptitude to leadership of the Zaporozhian Cossacks in present-day Ukraine.

His death was a bid to promote himself from the steppe to power over neighboring Moldavia, and in fairness to Ivan Moldavia was worth a go.

Its throne was held at that time by a new guy named Peter the Lame, and although the nickname just referred to Peter’s physical deformity, he was a creature of the Ottoman court who scarcely knew Moldavia before he became its vassal ruler in 1574. He was twice temporarily deposed before finally voluntarily resigning in 1591 so that he could retire to the comforts of Italy.

The first deposition came courtesy of our man Pidkova.

Claiming kinship with Peter’s late predecessor Ivan III,** Pidkova seized Iasi and proclaimed himself hospodar of Moldavia until the arrival of Ottoman reinforcements refuted the conceit.

This whole border region between the Polish-Lithuanian Empire to the north and the Ottomans to the south was a perennial trouble spot. Putatively subjects of the Polish crown, the refractory Cossacks were known to raid Ottoman territory illicitly and provoke diplomatic headaches on both sides of the border.

At this particular moment — 1578, that is — the Polish king Stephen Batory had only just concluded a truce with the Ottomans. As Batory had war with Russia to worry about, he was more than keen to keep his southern frontier calm; Polish troops captured the Cossack pretender and had him put to an exemplary death.


Monument to Ivan Pidkova in present-day Lviv. Image (c) stacy2005ua, a prolific photographer of Lviv’s environs whose work can be enjoyed at FaceAndHeart.com or on Flickr, and used with permission.

Ukraine’s national bard Taras Shevchenko celebrated Ivan Pidkova in an eponymous 1839 poem:

There was a time in our Ukraine
 When cannon roared with glee,
A time when Zaporozhian men
 Excelled in mastery!
They lived as masters — freedom’s joy
 And glory were their gain:
All that has passed, and what is left
 Is grave-mounds on the plain!
High are those ancient tumuli
 In which were laid to rest
The Cossacks’ fair white bodies
 In silken cerements dressed.
High are those mounds, serene and dark
 Like mountains they appear,
Their gentle whispers in the wind
 Of freedom’s fate we hear.
These witnesses of ancient fame
 Hold converse with the breeze;
The Cossacks’ grandson reaps the grass
 And sings old memories.
There was a time when in ukraine
 Even distress would dance,
And sorrow in a tavern drank
 In honeyed brandy’s trance.
There was a time when life was good
 In that Ukraine of ours …
Recall it then — perhaps the heart
 May briefly bathe in flowers.

II.

A murky cloud from Liman’s shore
 Covers the sun from sight;
The sea is like an angry beast
 That groans and howls with might.
It floods the mighty Danube’s mouth.
 “My fellows, come with me
Within our barks! The waves are wild.
 Let’s have a merry spree!”
The Zaporozhians rushed out;
 The stream with ships was roiled.
“Roar on, O sea!” they all sang out,
 As waves beneath them boiled.
Billows like mountains round them surged,
 They saw no land, no sky.
Yet not a Cossack heart grew faint,
 Their eagerness ran high.
A bold kingfisher flies o’erhead
 As on they sail and sing;
The brave otaman in the van
 Leads on their mustering.
He strides the deck, and in his mouth
 His pipe grows cold from thought;
He casts his glances here and there
 Where exploits may be wrought.
He curled his long black whiskers,
 He twirled his forelock free,
Then raised his cap — the vessels stopped:
&nbsp:”Death to the enemy!
Not to Sinope, comrades,
 Brave lads beyond all doubt!
We’ll drive on full to Istanbul
 To seek the Sultan out!”
“Well spoken, our fine chieftain!”
 They roared in chorus back.
“I thank you, lads!” He donned his cap.
 Again the seaward track
Beneath their keels began to boil;
 And once more thoughtfully
He paced the deck in mute content
 And gazed upon the sea.

That translation is via The Poetical Works of Taras Shevchenko; the original in Ukrainian can be enjoyed here. The exact text of that poem also comprises the lyrics of this jam:

* Or Ioan Potcoava, as Ivan came from Romanian stock.

** Moldavia’s own “Ivan the Terrible” — no relation to his Russian contemporary, of course.

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Entry Filed under: 16th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Heads of State,History,Poland,Power,Pretenders to the Throne,Public Executions,Soldiers,Treason,Ukraine

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1923: Daniel Cooper, baby farmer

Add comment June 16th, 2013 Headsman

On this date in 1923, Daniel Cooper was hanged in Wellington, New Zealand for murder.

Cooper and his second wife — his first died under suspicious circumstances; many people suspected Cooper of poisoning her — had a racket as a “health specialist” in the Wellington suburb of Newlands. Their “rest care home” attracted police surveillance as a front for baby-farming/infanticide.

Baby-farming involved taking a payment from a new mother to give up her child with the wink-wink understanding that the child would be placed for “adoption.” Occasionally, this adoption might even happen; in general, however, the mother’s fee would not be enough to maintain the child for any length of time, and the newborn would either be murdered outright or kept in such meager care as to succumb to neglect.

Representative instance from Daniel Cooper’s case: a pregnant woman named Mary McLeod paid £50 for Cooper to arrange her child’s adoption by an unnamed couple from Palmerston North. McLeod delivered the child on October 12, 1922, at the Coopers’ farm, where both mother and daughter were cared for for a few days. On October 20, Cooper told McLeod that the Palmerston North family had collected the infant. Nobody ever saw it again. Cooper also had two children with a lover named Beatrice Beadle, and these were also “adopted” to parts unknown.

Daniel was finally arrested on December 30, 1922 for performing an abortion (completely illegal in New Zealand at the time), and the ensuing investigation turned up evidence of 10 additional abortions and, eventually, three children’s bodies on the couple’s property. Prosecutors would eventually argue that Mary McLeod’s child was one of these.

“Out-Heroding Herod” screamed sensational headlines around the “Newlands baby farmers” case.

While Daniel Cooper was easily convicted of murder, his wife Martha Cooper was adroitly defended by former Liberal M.P. T.M. Wilford — who characterized the wife as “a soulless household drudge without a mind of her own,” and won her acquittal on that basis.

At 8 a.m. on June 16 (shortly after releasing a confession which likewise exonerated Martha), Daniel Cooper was walked with his eyes tight shut to the gallows at Terrace Gaol,* hooded, and hanged.

Original newspaper coverage of this case can be perused freely at New Zealand’s Papers Past database of pre-1945 clippings.

* Since demolished; Te Aro school occupies the site today.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Abortion and Infanticide,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,New Zealand

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1944: George Stinney, Jr., age 14

33 comments June 16th, 2012 Meaghan

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

On this date in 1944, a five-foot-one-inch, ninety-pound prisoner walked into the death chamber of the Central Correctional Institute in Columbia, South Carolina and was executed in the electric chair.

He was so small that the guards had trouble strapping him into the chair and fitting the electrodes on. When the first jolt of electricity hit him, the mask fell off his face, revealing an expression of horror.

His name was George Junius Stinney Jr., and at fourteen years, seven months and twenty-six days, he was the youngest person to be legally executed in the U.S. in the 20th century. In spite of this startling distinction, his death went practically unnoticed in the press.

Stinney, a black youth from a poor family in the town of Alcolu, was condemned for the double murder of two white girls he knew: Betty June Binnicker, age 11, and Mary Emma Thames, age 8. The girls had gone out on their bicycles on March 23, 1944, and along the way they saw Stinney and his sister and asked where to look for flowers. The Stinneys said they didn’t know.

The next day, the two girls’ bodies were found in a muddy, water-filled ditch. They had both sustained severe head injuries; their skulls were shattered. A fifteen-inch railroad spike was found nearby.

A few hours later, Stinney was arrested and locked in a room with several police officers and no one else. According to later testimony, at first he claimed the girls had suddenly attacked him and he hit them with the railroad spike in self-defense. However, a short time later he gave a second statement confessing to premeditated murder.

Stinney allegedly stated he had wanted to have sex with Betty June, but he couldn’t do so until the younger girl was out of the way, so he killed Mary Emma with the railroad spike. Betty June ran away, but Stinney caught up with her. When she resisted his sexual advances, he killed her too and dragged both bodies into the ditch. That’s the story.

When the townspeople found out that Stinney had confessed and would be charged with murder, a lynch mob formed outside the jail. Authorities took the boy to another jail in Columbia, fifty miles away, for his own safety; fearing for their own lives, Stinney’s family also fled town.

The trial took place on April 24, one month and one day after the murders, beginning at 2:30 p.m. Virtually the only evidence against Stinney was the testimony of the sheriff who heard the confession: there was no written record of the confession. Stinney’s defense attorney, who planned to run for state office, did not contest the confession and called no witnesses, but only claimed his client was too young to be held responsible for the murders. However, under South Carolina law at the time, a fourteen-year-old was legally an adult.

The jury was sent out at 5:00 p.m. and returned with a guilty verdict just ten minutes later.

There was no appeal.

Some local churches and the NAACP asked the governor for a commutation, citing Stinney’s age — but the governor allowed the execution to proceed. The entire drama from homicides to execution spanned less than 90 days.

One of Betty June Binnicker’s sisters reflected fifty years later, “Everybody knew that he done it, even before they had the trial they knew that he done it. But I don’t think that they had too much of a trial.”

More than sixty-five years after Stinney died, a community activist called for the case to be reopened, suggesting Stinney may have have been innocent. The evidence against him was absurdly slight. He had no history of violent behavior, and it seems unlikely that this short, slender boy would be strong enough to overpower two girls and beat them to death. Stinney’s brother, now a pastor in Brooklyn, said the family always believed in his innocence. Both his brother and his sister recalled that he had been a smart boy, a good student and artistic, and their family had been a close and loving one.

As one article noted, “Stinney’s trial and subsequent execution were suspicious at best and a miscarriage of justice at worst … This was South Carolina in 1944, with a black male defendant, two young white female victims, and an all white, male jury. Stinney never stood a chance.”


Stinney-inspired scene from the TV movie Carolina Skeletons.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Children,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Execution,Guest Writers,History,Milestones,Murder,Other Voices,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Rape,Sex,South Carolina,USA,Wrongful Executions

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1979: Ignatius Kutu Acheampong, former dictator of Ghana

2 comments June 16th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1979, former Ghanaian military strongman Ignatius Kutu Acheampong was shot in the aftermath of Jerry Rawlings’ successful coup d’etat.

Acheampong had executed a coup of his own in 1972 and run the unsteady West African state for most of the 1970s — a period of economic and political crisis — until he himself was toppled by another General, Fred Akuffo.

Acheampong was retired to his home village by the new regime, but he would not enjoy such satisfactory treatment when a national revolution ended Akuffo’s reign and brought junior officer Jerry Rawlings to power.

Less than two weeks after Rawlings was installed as Ghana’s new head of state, Acheampong was executed on a charge of corruption. This would not sate the considerable popular anger at the outgoing military clique, which went on to gorge itself on Akuffo and five others later that same month.

Former NFL defensive back Charlie Peprah is Acheampong’s grandson.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Ghana,Heads of State,History,Political Expedience,Politicians,Power,Shot,Soldiers

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1944: Marc Bloch, French historian

2 comments June 16th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1944, the Gestapo shot French historian Marc Bloch among a batch of Resistance members.

When war broke out between France and Germany in 1939, the 52-year-old professor spurned advice to get out of the country. Driven by his love of France, he resigned his post at the Sorbonne to join the reserves.

I was born in France, I have drunk the waters of her culture. I have made her past my own. I breathe freely only in her climate, and I have done my best, with others, to defend her interests.

(Bloch had won the Legion of Honor for his brilliance and bravery in World War I, “always ready to March and give example.”)

High-profile intellectuals of Resistance proclivities and Jewish extraction, needless to say, had a problem in those terrible years.

The remarkable Bloch almost made it through the whole of the war in the French Resistance, but was arrested a few weeks before the Allied landing at Normandy, tortured, and shot. Comrades in arms remembered his death as an unusually sobering loss.

We couldn’t, no we couldn’t bear that image: Marc Bloch, our “Narbonne” of clandestine life, turned over to the Nazi beasts; this perfect exemplar of French dignity, of exquisite and profound humanism, this spirit become a prey of flesh in the vilest hands. We were there, a few of us, in Lyons, his friends, his comrades in the clandestine struggle, when we learned of the arrest, when we were immediately told that, “They tortured him.” A detainee had seen him in the offices of the Gestapo, bleeding from the mouth (that bloody trail in the place of the last malicious smile he had left me with on a street corner before being caught up in the horror). I remember: at those words, “He was bleeding,” we broke out in tears of rage. The most hardened lowered their heads despondently, as we do when things are just too unfair.

For months we waited, hoped. Deported? Still in Montluc? Transferred to another city? We didn’t know anything until the recent day when we were told, “There’s no more hope. He was executed at Trévoux on June 16, 1944. His clothes and papers were recognized.” They killed him, alongside a few others who he inspired with his courage.

For we know how he died. A kid of sixteen trembled not far from him. “This is going to hurt.” Marc Bloch affectionately took his hand and simply said, “No, my boy, it doesn’t hurt,” and fell first, crying out: “Vive La France!”

Marc Bloch, commemorated at this French site, bequeathed 20th century scholarship one of its great intellectual legacies. His The Historian’s Craft,* a composition halted short of completion by the Nazi firing squad, was posthumously published and remains one of the classic texts of historiography; the journal he co-founded in 1929 gave its name to a whole school of thought in the field. (Bloch’s own name also adorned a school in a more literal sense, the Marc Bloch University, now subsumed by the University of Strasbourg.)

Works By and About Marc Bloch

* The blog To The Roots is in the midst of a series of posts exploring The Historian’s Craft.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Famous,France,Germany,Guerrillas,History,Intellectuals,Jews,Martyrs,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Separatists,Shot,Soldiers,Terrorists,Torture,Wartime Executions

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1958: Imre Nagy, former Prime Minister of Hungary

5 comments June 16th, 2008 Headsman

Fifty years ago today, the onetime Hungarian Prime Minister and three others associated with the country’s shattered 1956 revolution were hanged in Budapest for treason by the Soviet-backed Hungarian government.

A moderate Communist, Imre Nagy assumed leadership of Hungary from 1953 to 1955, a period of ideological thawing after the death of Joseph Stalin.

Nagy charted a “new course” towards Austrian-style neutrality or Yugoslavian-style “national Communism” not yoked to Moscow, opposed domestically by his predecessor and rival Matyas Rakosi, who eventually ousted the reform-minded minister.

But Nagy’s anti-Soviet credentials saw him elevated back to the office by popular acclamation during the 1956 Hungarian Revolution — an interval of the nation’s history still deeply cherished in Hungary today. Here’s a recollection by newsreel montage to the strains of Beethoven’s salute to the national martyrs of another time and place.

Nagy held the office for only ten days before Soviet intervention crushed the revolution. He issued this radio appeal to the world (in Hungarian, followed by the English version at about 0:34) on November 4, 1956:

[audio:Imre_Nagy_broadcast.mp3]

It was an appeal against all geopolitical realities; Hungary was the Soviet Union’s sphere, and western counter-intervention could have precipitated World War III. Verbal outrage abounded, of course:

But Khrushchev gibed that the United States had “supported” the revolution “in the nature of the support that the rope gives to a hanged man.”

For all that, the abortive revolution has won the benediction of history: still venerated in Hungary, and arguably a turning point in the postwar world when the Soviet Union set itself unmistakably and, eventually, fatally against the legitimate aspirations of its subjects.

Nagy’s statue in Budapest’s Martyrs’ Square. Creative Commons photo by Martin Ujlaki.

Less the leader of this stirring movement than carried along by it, Nagy nevertheless embraced the revolution fully.

His government hardly had the opportunity to implement any sort of programme, but it gestured towards multiparty parliamentary democracy. Nagy attempted to withdraw Hungary from the Warsaw Pact. And to the fame of his memory, he refused Soviet blandishments after his capture to recant and accede publicly to the new Hungarian government.

For these principles, Nagy, his defense minister Pal Maleter, and revolutionary officials Miklos Gimes and Jozsef Szilagyi underwent a weeklong trial June 9 to 15, culminating in execution on this date — all strictly hush-hush, and not announced until the bodies were cold.

Though secret, the trial was tape-recorded in its entirety. This past week, to coincide with the anniversary of the affair, the full 52 hours of audio were publicly aired for the first time — over the same June 9-15 span, and at the location of the original trial. The recordings are held by the Open Society Archives, which maintains a wealth of information on the 1956 revolution (such as, topically, this ‘death circular’ issued by anti-Soviet Hungarians). Formerly held under lock and key, the audio files are not yet published for public distribution at this point, but one would expect that it’s only a matter of time.

Nagy and his companions were officially rehabilitated and, on this date in 1989, reburied with honors; tens of thousands turned out to pay respects that had been officially prohibited for 33 years. In this chaotic period as Soviet domination of eastern Europe crumbled, their fellow-traveler Bela Kiraly (who gives a fascinating account from the inside of the Revolution in this 1996 interview) returned from exile for the reinternment ceremony and found that he was technically still under the sentence of death he had received in absentia at Nagy’s trial.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Hungary,Martyrs,Occupation and Colonialism,Politicians,Posthumous Exonerations,Power,Revolutionaries,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Treason,USSR,Wrongful Executions

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Execution Playing Cards

Exclusively available on this site: our one-of-a-kind custom playing card deck.

Every card features a historical execution from England, France, Germany, or Russia!