1312: Piers Gaveston

3 comments June 19th, 2010 Headsman

On this date in 1312, Edward II’s dearest friend Piers Gaveston was “executed” by the English nobility that had long despised him.

The “notorious royal favourite” had initially been welcomed by Edward I around 1300 as a royal companion for the crown prince.

By the end of Longshanks’ life, the old king was so irate at their relationship (the prince had had the temerity to request a title and castles for Gaveston) that Gaveston was booted out of the country.

(But at least he wasn’t defenestrated, the fate of the fictional Gaveston stand-in “Phillip” in Braveheart.)

Ah, the gay-baiting.

The younger Edward immediately recalled his friend when death came for Longshanks, and Gaveston was resented both by English peers and the young Queen Isabella for the favor the new king held him in.

The purported homosexual relationship between Edward II and Piers Gaveston is commonly believed* though ultimately speculative, reading between the lines of chroniclers who are sometimes bitterly hostile towards these two. “The King loved an evil male sorcerer more than he did his wife,” for instance, is a bit of propaganda — we obviously don’t believe the “sorcery” bit — and even that’s not completely explicit.

There’s a strong circumstantial interpretation to made, but since the particulars of Edward’s behavior with his favorite behind drawn tapestries are permanently unavailable to us, it will suffice us to say that this interpretation has conditioned the “Piers Gaveston” who comes to us in later centuries as a widely-credited cultural artifact.

Whether as calumny or commendation, homosexuality is the first thing everyone “knows” about Piers Gaveston, the emblem of his life and the doomed reign of his sovereign. We meet him from the other side of Stonewall, even when we meet him in Renaissance poetry or Renaissance drama.

The historical, flesh-and-blood Piers — and there’s a very thorough biography of him here** — was certainly defined by more than gay identity, real or imputed.

The personal resentment he inspired in the likes of Lancaster and Beauchamp was political, mapped onto the timeless power struggle between nobles and crown, and within the nobility itself.

The king trusted Gaveston, who was himself just the son of a knight, with plum royal assignments like governing Ireland, and Gaveston executed them effectively; with an immoderate confidence in his own considerable talents, the favorite was not above tweaking his rivals with derisive nicknames.

The Lancaster faction progressively got the upper hand on Edward and Gaveston, and with civil war brewing, they captured the hated Gascon at Scarborough Castle while Edward scrambled unavailingly to raise an army of his own.

He was held privately for nine days before Lancaster — “a sulky, quarrelsome, and vindictive man … quick to resort to violence,” by Alison Weir’s reckoning — decided he had to go. Gaveston was beheaded without color of law at Blacklow Hill near Warwick. A monument to his memory still stands there today.

Thou executioner of foule bloodie rage,
To act the will of lame decrepit age.

The grief-stricken monarch would serve his revenge upon the Earl of Lancaster ten years’ cold, beheading him for treason in 1322 upon the verdict of the man who had by then slid into Gaveston’s place in the king’s favor, Hugh Despenser.

* Not universally accepted, however.

** Bonus: Nineteen things you never knew about Piers Gaveston.

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Entry Filed under: 14th Century,Arts and Literature,Beheaded,Borderline "Executions",Disfavored Minorities,England,Execution,Famous,History,Homosexuals,No Formal Charge,Nobility,Politicians,Power,Put to the Sword,The Worm Turns

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1867: Emperor Maximilian I of Mexico, “Archdupe”

4 comments June 19th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1867, a firing squad disabused a Habsburg heir of his pretensions to the throne of Mexico.

A little bit loopy, a little bit liberal, and fatally short of common sense, Ferdinand Maximilian Joseph* decamped from the easy life at his still-under-construction dream palace outside Trieste for an exalted title that really meant playing catspaw for Napoleon III‘s Mexican land grab.

(To assuage the pangs of imperial adventurism upon our tender-headed hero, Maximilian had been “invited” to assume the Mexican throne by a convention handpicked to do just that.)

There the puppet emperor with the silver spoon in his mouth found himself pitted in civil war against the Amerindian peasant from the school of hard knocks: Benito Juarez, one of Mexico’s great liberal statesmen.

As the tide turned in favor of Juarez and the liberals, and Napoleon’s attention increasingly fixated on problems closer to home, the French threw in the towel.

But Maximilian had too much honor or too little sense to heed his patron’s advice to get out while the getting was good; sticking it out with “his people,” he was captured in May, 1867.

Juarez desiring to give any future bored European nobles second thoughts about New World filibustering, Maximilian got no quarter.**

While Louis Napoleon emceed a world’s fair on the other side of the planet, Maximilian was shot with two of his generals, Miguel Miramon and Tomas Mejia.


Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, showing an obvious compositional debt to Goya’s Executions of the Third of May. Further analysis: written English; video Spanish.

Maximilian’s widow Charlotte — “Carlota”, when trying to blend with her adoptive subjects — descended into a long-lived madness back in the Old World, but was rumored to have borne with one of Maximilian’s French officers an illegitimate child who would go on to become an infamous Vichy collaborator.

Books about Emperor Maximilian

This sensational affair attracted plenty of coverage in the ensuing years; as a result, there is a good deal of topical material from near-contemporaries now in the public domain. Maximilian in Mexico: A Woman’s Reminisces of the French Intervention 1862-1867 (Gutenberg | Google Books) is a zippy read.

* Brother to Austrian Emperor Franz Joseph.

** Spanish trial records are here. European appeals for clemency poured in, but Maximilian had doomed himself with the “Black Decree” of 1865, ordering summary executions of captured Republicans.

The time for indulgence has gone by: it would only encourage the despotism of bands of incendiaries, of thieves, of highwaymen, and of murderers of old men and defenseless women.

The government, strong in its power, will henceforth be inflexible in meting out punishment when the laws of civilization, humanity, or morality demand it.

Juarez answered the clemency appeal of Princess Salm-Salm with solemn words:

If all the Kings and Queens in Europe [pled for Maximilian] I could not spare that life. It is not I who take it; it is the people and the law, and if I should not do their will the people would take it and mine also.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,20th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Famous,Famous Last Words,Hanged,Heads of State,History,Mexico,Murder,Notably Survived By,Occupation and Colonialism,Power,Royalty,Shot,Wartime Executions

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1947: Shigematsu Sakaibara, “I obey with pleasure”

10 comments June 18th, 2009 Headsman

In the evening of June 18, 1947,* six convicted Japanese war criminals were hanged** by the U.S. Navy War Crimes Commission on Guam.


An unidentified Japanese prisoner ascends the gallows on Guam.

The most lastingly notable of the six was Rear Admiral Shigematsu Sakaibara, who was hanged for ordering (and perhaps in one instance, personally conducting) an infamous mass execution on Wake Island that has already appeared in these pages.

According to Judgment at Tokyo:

For some, the hanging of one of these six men had been a horrible tragedy and perhaps even a mistake. Rear Adm. Shigematsu Sakaibara had enjoyed the reputation of “gentleman soldier” and protector of the common man. Hailing from a wealthy family near Misawa in Tohokhu province, some 450 miles north of Tokyo, Sakaibara never forgot his roots. Forever poking fun at the fast-paced Tokyo lifestyle, the rear admiral touted the value of rural living, the integrity and honesty of those who lived in Japan’s rugged north country, and Tokyo’s need to recognize their great contributions to the war effort. Contemplating a postwar political future, he would be following in the footsteps of his politically influential family in northern Japan. That future was linked to championing the rights of returning veterans and other have-nots. Misawa had indeed had a heroic reputation as an important navy town and base for years. Sakaibara had assisted in the training exercises held there for the Pearl Harbor attack plan in late 1941. His future seemed golden no matter who won the war. But what some in his command called “The 1943 Incident” changed all that.


Shigematsu Sakaibara (right foreground) surrendering Wake Island on September 4, 1945.

These events, Sakaibara admitted in his trial, had taken place in an atmosphere of near starvation and impending doom. The defense counsel especially emphasized that point, asking the commission to understand and respect the pressures and strains on Sakaibara at the time of the incident. But the commission was not in a forgiving mood. In the chaos of retreat or not, innocent civilians had been murdered.

… Unfortunately for Sakaibara, several members of his former command expressed surprise on the witness stand when asked about the desperate situation on Wake in 1943. These men insisted that Sakaibara and his defense team’s description of a starving, chaotic Wake was an exaggerated one. There had been no unexpected miseries, confusion, or sense of peril, they said. Sakaibara’s fate was sealed.

True to form, defendant Sakaibara offered a very literate final statement to the commission. In contrast to so many of his colleagues on trial in Tokyo, on Guam, or elsewhere, Sakaibara, albeit with carefully picked words, admitted he was guilty of rash and unfortunate actions. He appeared especially convincing when he noted that he wished he had never heard of Wake Island. But his most memorable comments involved his own view of morality in war. A nation that drops atom bombs on major cities, the rear admiral explained, did not have the moral authority to try so many of his countrymen. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki in mind, Sakaibara claimed there was little difference between himself and the victors over Japan. With that statement a legend grew, particularly in his home town, of Sakaibara, the victim of American revenge.

… As late as the 1990s, some people there, not necessarily of the World War II generation, still bowed in reverence to Sakaibara family members out of respect for the “sacrificed” gentleman soldier.

His last words:

I think my trial was entirely unfair and the proceeding unfair, and the sentence too harsh, but I obey with pleasure.

* Some sources places the executions on June 19; the U.P. wire story, dated June 19th, referred to the hangings occurring “last night,” and the preponderance of evidence I have been able to locate appears to me to support the 18th rather than the 19th.

** An interesting bit of interservice-rivalry color on proceedings in Guam, courtesy of Prisoners of the Japanese:

The United States Navy had hanged fewer than a handful of men in more than a hundred years … Now on Guam they had all kinds of Japanese to try and sentence to death … They had to requisition an Army executioner to show them how to hang. He was a lieutenant with silver-rimmed glasses, a leading-man moustache, and a paunch. He used the traditional British drop formula, but he was an innovator as well: He invented a method of lowering the dead body to the stretcher without having to cut the rope.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Execution,Executioners,Famous Last Words,Guam,Hanged,History,Japan,Mass Executions,Occupation and Colonialism,Soldiers,USA,War Crimes,Wrongful Executions

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1953: Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, “the first victims of American fascism”

June 19th, 2008 Headsman

On this date in 1953, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were put to death in Sing Sing’s electric chair as Soviet spies.

Divisive since it was handed down — or more precisely, since a famous article in London’s Guardian challenged the verdict and helped elevate it into a latter-day Dreyfus case — the Rosenbergs‘ sentence has inspired so much acrimony over several generations that merely to observe the date is to invite a debate capable of eminently more heat than light.

Where to begin with a case so towering in the recent cultural milieu?

A textbook might say that Julius and Ethel were convicted of passing atomic secrets to the Russians, that they maintained their innocence and their defenders carried that flame years after their deaths, and that intelligence files opened after the Cold War — notably the Venona project — apparently confirmed that Julius was a spy after all, though Ethel seems to have been little more than an approving bystander and Julius, come to think of it, never had anything so worthwhile as atomic secrets to share with Moscow. This information (which does have its own skeptics, albeit a small minority) undermines the maximal “absolute innocence” position that this day’s victims always asserted, but it’s a curious leap to take it as vindicating the legal outcome.

“My husband and I must be vindicated by history; we are the first victims of American fascism.”

Half a century on, juridical guilt or innocence seems distinctly secondary in the lasting importance of the Rosenberg trial, the two-year battle to save them, and their potent symbolic afterlives.

The Rosenbergs are the only stateside judicial executions for espionage since the Civil War.* That is a remarkable distinction, after all; so, how comes it that it is held by — to state the case against them in its strongest imaginable terms — two enthusiastic but bush-league players, and not by the likes of Aldrich Ames? How was it that a judge with a largely center-liberal career on the bench would read them a sentence of death hysterically accusing these Lower East Siders of causing the Korean War?

[Y]our conduct in putting into the hands of the Russians the A-bomb years before our best scientists predicted Russia would perfect the bomb has already caused, in my opinion, the Communist aggression in Korea, with the resultant casualties exceeding 50,000 and who knows but that millions more of innocent people may pay the price of your treason.

I feel that I must pass such sentence upon the principals in this diabolical conspiracy to destroy a God-fearing nation, which will demonstrate with finality that this nation’s security must remain inviolate; that traffic in military secrets, whether promoted by slavish devotion to a foreign ideology or by a desire for monetary gains must cease.

It is here in the age of McCarthyism, in the shadow of the USSR’s balance-altering A-bomb test in 1949, that the Rosenbergs stand in sharpest relief — not because of “guilt” or “innocence”, but as the ne plus ultra of that era’s range of social discipline.

A few years before, the United States and the Soviet Union had made common cause against Hitler in World War II, the United States pumping war materiel to Russians bearing the brunt of the fighting.

No longer operative.

The Communist Party USA enjoyed membership rolls pushing six figures; other socialist parties and movements had found niches in American life in the interwar years.

As the Great War gave way to the Cold War, the great powers remained nominal allies (that’s the reason the Rosenbergs weren’t tried for treason), but shifted rapidly into conflict. The American polity organized to expel the red menace by rendering it foreign and criminal — ideological rigging for the forty years’ imperial contest ahead. Loyalty oaths, blacklists, the House Un-American Activities Committee … in the whole of the self-conscious construction of communism as “contagion”, the power and willingness of the state to kill Julius and Ethel Rosenberg formed the tip of the spear, and an ugly contrast to that same state’s solicitous handling of Nazi scientists then developing the vehicles to deliver atomic technology to Moscow in mushroom cloud form.

Though different in many particulars, the thrust will be familiar to any sentient denizen of post-9/11 America: the extreme penalty enforces a wall between the suspect and abject (but tolerated) loyal liberal and the enemy left. Depend upon Ann Coulter for the most brutal articulation:

We need to execute people like John Walker [the American-born soldier captured fighting for the Taliban in 2001] in order to physically intimidate liberals, by making them realize that they can be killed, too. Otherwise, they will turn out to be outright traitors.

Like most symbols, the Rosenbergs came by their exaltation by accident; at the strictly personal level, their deaths are nearly operatic performances of human stubbornness and bureaucratic inertia. Investigators rolling up a spy ring** were looking for confessions and names to keep the indictments coming.

Julius refused to provide either, so his wife was arrested for leverage against him on the reasoning that he would confess to protect her. The gambit failed: both prisoner and hostage remained obstinate. The government’s bluff had been called, and it ruthlessly executed its threat.

Had the two really been responsible for starting a war, execution would hardly begin to cover the bill — yet to the very foot of the chair, the condemned, and Julius especially for the sake of his wife, were pressed with offers of mercy for confessing and “naming names”.

Abjure or expire: show trial logic.

[audio:Julius_and_Ethel_Rosenberg.mp3]

An Execution in the Family

Given names to name, the personal mystery of their silence — the ultimate heroism or folly or tragedy or transcendence — only deepens the resonance of their fate both for contemporaries and posterity, the poignance of their orphaned children’s subsequent path, the contrast with Ethel’s brother David Greenglass who has since admitted to perjuring testimony against Ethel in order to shield his own wife. (Greenglass says the Rosenbergs died from the “stupidity” of not copping a deal of their own.)

Even before Julius and Ethel went to the chair this date,† they had become the emblem of a paranoid age. In the days following, Sartre savaged the United States for trying “to stop scientific progress by a human sacrifice”:

Your country is sick with fear. You’re afraid of everything: the Russians, the Chinese, the Europeans. You’re afraid of each other. You’re afraid of the shadow of your own bomb.

Decades later, the shadows haven’t faded altogether. In playwright Tony Kushner’s imagination, the spirit of Ethel stalks her real-life prosecutor, closeted McCarthy henchman Roy Cohn, as he succumbs to AIDS in the 1980’s.‡

Rosenberg resources — and vitriol — are in plentiful supply online and off. A good starting point on the case is this page at the University of Missouri – Kansas City. Be sure to check the tale of a last-ditch legal maneuver that almost succeeded.

* There is one partial exception in the unusual case of six German saboteurs electrocuted in Washington, D.C., during World War II on a charge sheet that included espionage. The hearing was held by a military commission and only one of the six was an American citizen, so it was far from the regular judicial process — if one can call it that — the Rosenbergs faced.

** Originating in the investigation of Klaus Fuchs, the man who actually did what Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were accused of doing — passing atomic secrets to Moscow — although with debatable ultimate effect for the Soviets’ research. Fuchs served nine-plus years in a British prison and was released to East Germany; more than a few were galled at the difference between his sentence and the Rosenbergs’.

Stateside, George Koval was another spy far more valuable to Moscow in the nuclear race than were the Rosenbergs. Koval got away clean and died in Moscow in 2006.

† Julius first, then Ethel. Her execution was botched; repeated shocks were required to kill her.

‡ Cohn’s posthumous autobiography did acknowledge illegally rigging the Rosenberg trial, as his Kushner character does.

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Entry Filed under: 20th Century,Activists,Arts and Literature,Botched Executions,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Electrocuted,Espionage,Execution,Famous,History,Innocent Bystanders,Jews,Martyrs,Milestones,New York,Notable Jurisprudence,Notable Participants,Notably Survived By,Popular Culture,Ripped from the Headlines,Russia,Spies,U.S. Federal,USA,USSR,Wartime Executions,Women,Wrongful Executions

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