On this date in 1884, a French expeditionary force’s summary battlefield executions marked its retreat from an ambush — and the approach of the Sino-French War.
Having established a foothood in south Vietnam (Cochinchina), France was pushing into north Vietnam (Tonkin) — a campaign that could open a potentially lucrative route straight into China.
For the same reason, China viewed Tonkin as its own security zone. The ensuing skirmishes had as we lay our scene been recently abated by the Tientsin Accord* — an accord on France’s terms, since she had lately enjoyed the run of play in the field.
One of those terms was Chinese withdrawal from Tonkin, and as one might expect the Chinese had little appetite to speedily effect such a submission. In June 1884, when a small French column commanded by a Lt. Col. Alphone Dugenne pushed into what was supposed to be France’s new satrapy, it expected to occupy undefended towns.
Instead, on June 23, having forded the rain-swollen Song Thuong River, Dugenne’s force encountered Chinese regulars manning a chain of clifftop forts.
Outnumbered and on unfamiliar ground, the French surely felt their vulnerability. “High rocks, deep canyons, dense woods and somber defiles, where a handful of resolute men could easily have stopped a whole army, were the principal features of the country,” according to a French-derived account published later that year in the U.S.** “The heat was intense, and fatigue overcame the soldiers, already tired by the thousands of ostacles of the road. The fiery atmosphere did not allow any ret, even during the night, and terrible showers of rain, accompanied with thunder and lightning, converted the rivulets into torrents which swept everything before them, soaked the poor soldiers and destroyed provisions.”
A delegation under flag of truce informed Dugenne that China’s commander was aware of the Tientsin Accord, but had received no superior orders to withdraw. This obviously put both forces in an uncomfortable position. The Chinese wanted time: was this a good faith sorting-out (the Tientsin arrangements were barely six weeks old), or a double game? When the eventual winners wrote the history of events, they called what ensued June 23-24 the Bac Le ambush.
Believing that he had an arrangement with his opposite number, Dugenne’s column moved ahead on the afternoon of the 23rd, in a defile ominously commanded by the Chinese positions. Suddenly — and accounts from the two sides each accuse the other of provoking the first shots — the French came under Chinese fire. “Every tree, every overhanging rock, concealed an invisible enemy, who, being perfectly under cover himself, safely inflicted death all around him,” our correspondent’s account runs.
Illustration of the Bac Le ambush from Le guet-apens de Bac-Le by a French officer who survived it, Jean-Francois-Alphonse Lecomte.
But the ambush did not become a massacre; the French were able to regroup, stabilize their position, and camp that night — the Chinese “so near that they could hear them talk.”
The next day, the French would find themselves hopelessly outgunned but not (yet) encircled, and by mid-morning would be effecting an orderly retreat. In the course of it, Dugenne ordered at least two sets of executions to maintain discipline: early in the morning, it was “the hanging of two Chinese spies who had just been caught … with great solemnity and a great apparat, which caused a hail of bullets to whiz from all sides, where the Chinese friends of the hanged men were concealed.”
Hours later, as his column formed up to withdraw, Dugenne harshly punished his own native Tonkinese auxiliaries, green recruits who had all but routed in the first moments of the ambush when they came under fire and whose ill discipline could not be brooked on retreat: Dugenne “gave an order before [retreating] to shoot down ten Tonquinese of the native troops.”
Dugenne reached friendly forces safely, and with him accounts of a “massacre” that would incense public opinion in Paris. China’s refusal to meet the ensuing French demands for satisfaction in this affair would by August trigger open war in Tonkin.
* Not to be confused with 1885’s Treaty of Tientsin, which actually ended the Sino-French War.
On this date in 1718,* Peter the Great’s hand-picked court condemned his son and onetime heir apparent Tsarevich Alexei to death for plotting treason.
Probably no single figure more strikingly underscored Peter’s violent rupture of the old Russia than Alexei: “timid, secretive and lacking in self-confidence,” he was Peter’s opposite in nearly every particular — his nemesis, literally from birth.
The product of Peter’s unsatisfactory first dynastic marriage to a conservative boyar princess, Alexei got abandoned along with his mother Eudoxia Lopukhina when Peter went on his years-long jag through western Europe.
Peter eventually forced the tsaritsa into a convent so he could take up with the ambitious emigre beauty Anna Mons, but the firstborn son was not so easily discarded.
Often malignantly ignored in his youth, Alexei spent his teen years being browbeaten by Peter who rightly despaired of ever making the boy into a king who could carry Peter’s legacy.
Where the father was preternaturally energetic, the son was feeble and reticent; Peter’s irritated letters to Alexei frequently complain of his laziness. (“I am incapable of exertion,” Alexei whinged.) Where the father had a curious mind for the Age of Enlightenment, the son was a dreamer who preferred the mysteries of the Orthodox religion. The boy showed little interest in politics or statecraft, but his position as the firstborn son meant that politics and statecraft were interested in him. Alexei just wanted to go to church and fool around with his Finnish mistress; he feigned or induced illness to avoid the instructional tasks his father appointed him, and once even tried to shoot himself in the hand to duck work.
The father called on all of his legendary severity fruitlessly trying to twist this malformed sapling into a sovereign when the boy’s every characteristic seemed to reproach Peter’s mission of a new and reborn Russia.
“How often have I scolded you for this, and not merely scolded but beaten you,” Peter wrote the boy when the latest assignment was not accomplished to his satisfaction. “Nothing has succeeded, nothing is any use, all is to no purpose, all is words spoken to the wind, and you want to do nothing but sit at home and enjoy yourself.” Start with scolding, proceed to beating — Peter’s philosophy of management as well as child-rearing.
Ever more fearful of his hated father, Alexei in 1716 gave Peter one final and greatest embarrassment by spurning his father’s last ultimatum to join the Russian army on campaign. Instead, the tsarevich fled to the protection of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles VI. Charles put him up in Naples for a year until Peter’s courtier Count Tolstoy** finally persuaded Alexei to return.
Alexei hoped he had arranged to get out of the royal-succession game and live as a private citizen, but where princes of the blood are concerned this option is more easily conceived than arranged. Peter well knew that the Orthodox clergy and many aristocrats awaited his death as their opportunity to roll back his reforms; the pious Alexei was inevitably a focus of these hopes and the boy embraced rather than shunned the association. Moreover, the twerp had made Peter look the fool before all of Europe with his running-away act.
Instead, the prince — whose return to Russia under the circumstances really was quite naive — found himself faced with a cruel inquisition.
Detail view (click for the full image) of Nikolai Ge’s 1871 painting “Peter the Great Interrogating the Tsarevich Alexei Petrovich in Peterhof” (via Wikimedia Commons)
Gibbon wrote of Marcus Aurelius that in permitting his notorious son Commodus to become his heir, “he sacrificed the happiness of millions to a fond partiality for a worthless boy, [and] chose a successor in his own family, rather than in the republic.”
Peter the Great easily possessed the iron resolution that the ancient Stoic lacked.
The tsar had learned seamanship in his youth by working in European dockyards; had learned soldiery by enrolling himself in the ranks and working his way up from drummer-boy. In his childhood he had seen the palace guard run amok in the Kremlin slaughtering his own family, bided his time until he could topple the power of his half-sister and take Russia in hand, and then wrought on those mutinous soldiers a terrible revenge.
And he had set for his reign a self-consciously world-historic mission, to force an unwilling nation into the European family. This enterprise of relentless, exhausting hubris the tsar applied everywhere from the cut of his noblemen’s facial hair to the whole-cloth creation of the Westward-facing capital city St. Petersburg.
Just so did Peter address himself to his truculent son.
“I will deprive you of the succession, as one may cut off a useless member,” he threatened in a come-to-Jesus letter of 1715, when Alexei was already 25 years old.
Do not fancy that, because I have no other child but you, I only write this to terrify you. I will certainly put it in execution if it please God; for whereas I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people, why should I spare you who do not render yourself worthy of either? I would rather choose to transmit them to a worthy stranger than to my own unworthy son.
Peter, to borrow a phrase redolent in Russian historiography, mourned not the cracked eggs that made his omelette.
And sometime after Alexei’s flight to Naples, Peter had clearly come to the understanding that for the good of his nation that unworthy son must indeed be spattered.
This episode places Peter in a monstrous light, just as would Marcus Aurelius appear to us had he contrived to murder the future tyrant Commodus when the latter was a mere callow youth. We do not have the luxury of seeing the path not taken, but it ought be said in the towering tsar’s defense that his disdain for the crown prince’s ability is difficult not to share. Alexei’s character stacks flaw upon flaw; no doubt Peter’s upbringing, by turns distant and brutal, was stamped upon it. Let the father bear that failure, but it does not relieve the sovereign’s choice: was he to confide his country and his legacy to the hands of this goblin? Was it even tolerable to leave this firstborn cooling his heels in a monastery, waiting for Peter’s death to cast off cowl and abdication and be acclaimed king by Old Russia?
Peter’s own youth, when he was part of an unresolved dynastic rivalry awkwardly sharing power, had been mired in plots and counterplots. Now, he could scarcely help but suspect that Alexei was also a piece of some conspiracy intending to undo Peter — whether in life or in death.
He forced the son to name his confidantes, then put those confidantes to torture and followed their accusations. In March of 1718, several men were broken on the wheel in Red Square; Alexei’s mother, long ago exiled to a convent, was menaced through her lover who was publicly impaled. Others got off with whippings, brandings, beatings, exile.
Not long after, that Finnish mistress of Alexei returned to the rodina herself. During his mission to Italy, Count Tolstoy had compromised her, and now she willingly supplied Peter the evidence of his son’s treason: that he spoke often of the succession, and how he would abandon St. Petersburg, let the navy rot, and restore the rights of the church; that he thrilled to every rumor of Peter’s illness and even to a mutiny. (Alexei would later acknowledge to his father’s face that had the mutineers acclaimed him tsar, he would have answered the summons.)
Peter empowered a very reluctant secular court to examine Alexei as a traitor without deference to his royal person. In a word, this meant torture — and on June 19, the frail Alexei was lashed 25 times with the knout, a terrible whip reinforced with metal rings that flayed a man’s back into carrion-meat and could even break the spine. Alexei managed to endure it, so on June 24 his suppurating wounds were reopened with another 15 strokes of the cruel scourge.
Under this inhuman torment, Alexei admitted wishing his father’s death — not much of an admission since he had already said as much to dad in the weeks before. But this gave his magistrates enough to condemn the tsarevich to death later that same night, for compassing the death of the king. The reality was that Alexei, vapid and indolent, had only one design on the death of his father: to await it with hope.
What we do not quite know is whether or how this sentence was actually effected. Peter wavered and did not sign the sentence — but as contemporaries saw it, God signed it.
On the morning of June 26, Peter and a number of other court dignitaries went to Peter and Paul Fortress. The fortress’s logs do not specify whether this was yet another round of torture for Alexei; stories would later circulate that Peter or a subaltern murdered the boy here by crudely beating him to death or privately beheading him, sparing the realm the spectacle of the broken crown prince mounting the scaffold.
But the official story, that an already-faltering Alexei begged Peter’s forgiveness as he succumbed to the shock notice of his condemnation, could easily be true: 40 strokes of the knout were enough to take the life of a much firmer constitution than Alexei’s.
By any measure, Peter authored the death of his son under the pall of execution, if not its literal fact — and for all the instances of royal-on-royal violence supplied by the annals, this filicide is nearly unique: Peter the Great, Emperor of All Russia, tortured his disappointing son to death.
Peter the Great died in 1725 at age 52 — according to legend, catching his death by forging into the freezing Finnish Gulf to rescue some drowning soldiers. (“I do not spare my own life for my country and the welfare of my people …”) Peter’s wives had borne him eight legitimate sons over the years, but Alexander, Pavel, Peter, another Pavel, another Peter, yet another Pavel, and yet another Peter had all died in early childhood. This was to be (after the brief reign later in the 1720s of Alexei’s sickly son Peter II) the end of the direct male line of Romanovs.
Instead, Peter was succeeded by his remarkable wife Catherine, by origin a Latvian peasant — and the 18th century would be dominated by female monarchs, culminating with Catherine the Great.
* It was June 24 by the Julian calendar still in use in Russia at that time. By the modern Gregorian calendar, Alexei Petrovich was condemned on July 5, and died on July 7.
On this date in 1340, the English and French fought an early naval engagement of the Hundred Years’ War: the Battle of Sluys.
The English won the battle … and the French admiral wound up hanging from a mast.
At the outset of the Hundred Years’ War in 1337, the French bossed the Channel and inflicted devastating sea raids on the English coast. In the long war’s first major battle at sea, a French fleet in September 1338 overwhelmed an English flotilla carrying valuable English wool to the Low Countries.
Nicholas Behuchet, one of the French commanders at this earlier battle, did not hesitate to massacre his prisoners.
Thus conquering did these said mariners of the king of France in this winter take great pillage, and especially they conquered the handsome great nef called the Christophe, all charged with the goods and wool that the English were sending to Flanders, which nef had cost the English king much to build: but its crew were lost to these Normans, and were put to death.
England’s allies were in the Low Countries, so too many battles like this stood to strangle the English cause in the crib. For near two years, French privateers had leave to ravage the English coast, while French troops overran Flanders and made the English Queen Philippa* hostage.
Seeking a breakout, King Edward III requisitioned English merchant cogs — there was no standing navy at the time — into a fleet of perhaps 160 or 200 vessels, heavy with soldiers to invade Flanders.
On June 24, two days after setting out from the Orwell estuary at Ipswich, Edward’s armada boldly fell upon a larger French fleet anchored at the Flanders port of Sluys.
The medieval chronicler Froissart’s account makes for riveting reading.** This was no stately ballet of seamanship but a gory close-quarters melee: as was characteristic for the time, the “sea” battle was mostly just about coming together for the respective fleets’ marines to board one another’s ships and murder anyone on board who wasn’t worth a ransom. The French admiral Behuchet lashed his ships together across the mouth of the harbor, a sort of floating breastwork that would enable the French soldiery to shimmy up and down the entire line no matter where the English focused their attack.
To the sound of “scores of trumpets, horns and other instruments,”
Fierce fighting broke out on every side, archers and crossbowmen shooting arrows and bolts at each other pell-mell, and men-at-arms struggling and striking in hand-to-hand combat. In order to come to closer quarters, they had great iron grappling-hooks fixed to chains, and these they hurled into each others’ ships to draw them together and hold them fast while the men engaged. Many deadly blows were struck and gallant deeds performed, ships and men were battered, captured and recaptured. The great ship Christopher [a large English cog previously captured by the French and situated in the French front row -ed.] was recovered by the English at the beginning of the battle and all those on board were killed or taken prisoner …
An illustration of the Battle of Sluys from Froissart’s chronicle. Note the mast of the ship at far left: it displays the English arms quartered with the French, Edward III’s heraldic assertion of sovereignty over both realms.
It was indeed a bloody and murderous battle. Sea-fights are always fiercer than fights on land, because retreat and flight are impossible. Every man is obliged to hazard his life and hope for success, relying on his own personal bravery and skill … [it] rage[d] furiously from early morning until afternoon, during which time there were many notable feats of arms and the English were hard put to it to hold their own, since they were opposed by hardened soldiers and seamen, who outnumbered them by four to one.
Edward III took an arrow or crossbow bolt to the leg — great-man historical legend has it that it was fired by Nicholas Behuchet himself — but captained his flotilla to an overwhelming victory, capturing most of the French ships and destroying the French, their Genoese allies, “and all who were with them … [they were] killed or drowned, not a single one escaping in the general slaughter.” Poetic license aside, it was a spectacular triumph for the English — and a crushing defeat for the French.†
In the 1596 play Edward III, which might have been co-written by Shakespeare, imagined the scene in the report of an escaped mariner:
Purple the sea, whose channel filled as fast
With streaming gore that from the maimed fell
As did the gushing moisture break into
The crannied cleftures of the through-shot planks.
Here flew a head dissevered from the trunk,
There mangled arms and legs were tossed aloft
As when a whirlwind takes the summer dust
And scatters it in middle of the air.
Then might ye see the reeling vessels split
And tottering sink into the ruthless flood,
Until their lofty tops were seen no more.
Let it not be said that in this instance the commander escaped the consequences of his folly. Behuchet, who insisted against advice on lashing the boats together and thereby sacrificed all maneuverability, didn’t have much room for maneuver himself when the victorious English hanged him at battle’s end from the mast of his own ship.
* Seen elsewhere in these pages successfully begging her husband’s pardon of the famed Six Burghers of Calais later in the war. Philippa was a homegrown native of the Low Countries, and her marriage to Edward III reflects the alliance between their respective regions.
† It is said that no courtier dared give King Philip VI of France the horrifying news until a jester availing his station’s license for cheek informed him that “Our knights are much braver than the English.” Asked why, the fool replied, “The English do not dare jump into the sea in full armour.”
Close to midnight on this date in 1890, four convicted murderers — three of them black and one white — were hanged on the gallows inside the Shelby County Jail in Tennessee. They were Edward Carr, 28, Parker Harris, 30, Hardy Ballard, 45, and Frank Brenish, 36.
Carr, who was half-black, had murdered his estranged wife Sallie in broad daylight on the street in Memphis on November 9, 1889. Edward Carr wanted to move to Mississippi and Sallie did not, and she had left him and moved in with a woman friend. When Edward saw his wife and her friend walking down the street, he said, “Sallie, I am going to kill you,” and then shot her.
She ran away, but he chased after her and shot her three more times. Sallie Carr died in her friend’s arms.
Edward surrendered to the police three days later, and his lawyer had to persuade him not to plead guilty to murder.
At his trial he said, “I do not know why I killed her. It was not because she offended me. We had lived happily together … I loved her so well, and she would not go with me.” Offering no defense, he was accordingly convicted on December 17, six weeks after his crime.
Harris had also killed his wife, Letha “Lettie” Harris, on the street in front of witnesses. Lettie was an “octoroon”, a now-outdated term for someone who is of mixed race and one-eighth black, seven-eighths white.
Like the Carrs, the Harrises were estranged and Lettie was living apart from her husband. On August 18, 1889, said husband encountered her riding in a buggy with several women and asked her to come home; Lettie replied that she never wanted to speak to him again.
In response, Parker Harris slashed her throat, then his own. He was able to run from the scene but collapsed several blocks away, weak from blood loss. He recovered sufficiently from his wounds to face trial; he too was easily convicted.
Hardy Ballard had killed a streetcar driver, G. Emmett Pinkston, on Christmas Day 1889 after an argument over the nickel fare. Ballard insisted he had paid; Pinkston said he hadn’t, and kicked him off the car. Both parties were armed in the ensuing fight, Ballard with a knife and Pinkston with an iron hook, and Ballard got the better of the streetcar driver and stabbed him to death.
His plea of self-defense at trial was not believed by the jury.
The sole white man, Frank Brenish, was a wife killer just like two of his co-condemned. Mary, his wife of two years, had left him because of his drinking and his failure to support her and his two stepchildren. Frank threatened to kill his wife if she didn’t come back to him, and Mary took these threats seriously enough to report them to the police. The cops had a talk with Frank and he promised to leave his wife alone.
Mary remained fearful, however, and when she went out she took her fourteen-year-old daughter, her sister and another man to protect her in case she encountered her husband. They were with her the night the murder was committed: they saw the whole thing.
Frank Brenish’s crime was so similar to Parker Harris’s that there was some speculation the two might have a joint trial: on July 5, 1889 he jumped out of a dark alley and slashed Mary’s throat, nearly decapitating her. Then he cut his own throat. Against the odds, a doctor was able to save Frank’s life, but Mary was beyond help: she had died almost instantly.
All four of the condemned were given copious amounts of alcohol while awaiting their execution, and Brenish got morphine as well. The wound on his throat hadn’t healed and it leaked from time to time. The night before his executed, he made a halfhearted attempt at suicide by slashing his wrist with a makeshift knife.
This was the era of racial apartheid in America, however, and even when men died together, they perhaps might not die together.
The gallows in this instance was built for two, so the natural idea was to hang the four men as two pairs.
Brenish, however, refused to suffer the indignity of being hanged alongside a Negro.
His jailers — and one hardly needs to mention their racial identity — honored his request for a segregated execution and modified the gallows so three people could be hanged at once.
The three black prisoners went first. Brenish died alone, fifteen minutes later. Harris, Ballard and Carr had “clean” hangings and died quickly, after making the usual final statements about their sins and their hope for redemption in Heaven.
When the time came for his racially unsullied death, Brenish was either so drunk or so scared he could barely stand, and he took several more swallows of whiskey while standing on the scaffold. He had severed his trachea when he slashed his throat and could only barely speak above a whisper. When he was asked for a final statement, the best he could come up with was, “They oughtn’t to hang a man when he ain’t in his right mind.”
The officers had difficulty in placing the handcuffs because of his bandaged wrist. Blood trickled down his white gloves. With the noose and cap placed, he swayed to and fro and had to be held. When the lever was pulled and he dropped there was a pop (his neck was broken) and a hissing sound. The drop had opened the hole in his throat from the attempted suicide on the night of the killing. The hole was large enough to hold a cigar. As he hung, his wrist wound bled profusely.
Gruesome as his death may have appeared, though, Brenish didn’t suffer long. His heart stopped in less than a minute.
The Okudaira, allies of the wars’ eventually-victorious Tokugawa clan, found themselves besieged by the Takeda. This would result in the important Battle of Nagashino.
Kurosawa’s masterpiece Kagemusha imagines the Takeda where the (real) late daimyoShingen was succeeded after his (real) 1573 death (fictitiously) by an imposter thief posing as the great commander. In the film, the imposter is unmasked and deposed, but witnesses the climactic Battle of Nagashino … and then makes a futile charge under the Takeda banner after that side is slaughtered.
After an initial Takeda attempt to take the fortress by storm, the Takeda settled in for a brief siege — knowing the defenders to have only a few days’ supplies on hand. Enter Torii Suneemon.
Under cover of darkness on the night of the 22nd-23rd, Suneemon slipped out of the Yagyu gate and picked his way through Takeda tripwires to escape the investment … and summon help.
Torii Suneemon embarks on his mission: 19th century woodblock print of Yoshitoshi‘s “24 Accomplishments of Imperial Japan” series. The same artist also depicted that event in this triptych.
He made it on the 23rd to Tokugawa Ieyasu and Oda Nobunaga, who upon hearing his report pledged to dispatch a relief force the very next day.
Alas for him, Suneemon’s attempt to sneak back into the encircled fortress to deliver the good news was detected on the 24th, and he came as a prisoner to the Takeda commander. The Takeda prevailed upon their helpless captive to exchange his life for a signal service: approach the fortress walls and shout to the garrison that no help was on the way.
This Suneemon agreed to do.
The legends differ as to whether he walked on up to deliver this bogus bad news, or whether the Takeda lifted him up on a cross to impress upon their new agent the penalty for any funny business. Either way, Torii Suneemon had the last laugh: he immediately began hollering to the defenders that help was coming if they could just hang on a few more days.
The besiegers, of course, crucified him immediately … but everyone could appreciate the doomed man’s heroism.
While the grateful Okudaira elevated his family to samurai rank, even an enemy Takeda commander who witnessed the event was so moved that he adopted the image of the defiantly crucified soldier for his battle standard.
Nor was the brave soldier’s sacrifice in vain. The garrison did hold on — and their allies did relieve them, and did rout the Takeda in the resulting Battle of Nagashino. (The scenario is widely reproduced in video games nowadays).
* Some sites give this as “May 16″, but I believe the primary sources here actually indicate the 16th day of the 5th month on the traditional Japanese lunisolar calendar. This date corresponds to June 24, 1575 of the Julian calendar. (1570s conversion aid in this pdf, or use this converter).
On this date in 1842,* British diplomats Charles Stoddart and Arthur Conolly were summarily beheaded by a Central Asian potentate as London’s ill-chosen intervention in Afganistan came to a disastrous conclusion.
The backdrop is “the Great Game”,** the long-running chess match for supremacy in Central Asia between an expanding Russian Empire and Great Britain, with its imperial position in India.
[I]n the nineteenth century, the executions carried out there with genuine cruelty, as well as the tales told by travelers gave the city a reputation of being a forbidden, closed, and hostile place. It was “despotic” Bukhara, and the Europeans projected onto it their own oriental fantasies: with citadel, dungeons, palaces, and city walls bolted shut at night, all helping to set the scene.
Scenic! Bukhara’s historic citadel, the Ark, where Stoddart (and later Conolly) were imprisoned (and later executed). (cc) image from elif ayse.
Into this scene, our Brit entered clumsily, immediately irritating the ruler he intended to supplicate. Reportedly (though the fact has been disputed), he was on the brink of execution when he acceded to save his life to Nasrullah’s formulaic offer of clemency in exchange for conversion to Islam.
In any event, Stoddart languished for years, alternately imprisoned and in the custody of the (better-received) Russian mission. Though the latter had also been charged by its sovereign to retrieve the ill-favored English emissary as a gesture of Great Powers goodwill (and to deprive England of any rationale for intervention that his captivity might offer), Stoddart seems to have been too stubbornly prideful to get out via St. Petersburg while the getting was good.
Instead, he waited on the arrival of countryman Arthur Conolly, who showed up in late 1841 on a mission to secure Stoddart’s release. But Stoddart’s situation little improved, considering Nasrullah Khan’s wary reaction to this second British interloper.
Word has it that the Bukharan prince was piqued that correspondence to him did not arrive over the signature of the British monarch herself, but merely some subcontinental subaltern — as well as, we might think understandably, suspicious at his guests’ motivations and mission.
The captor’s uncertain attitude towards his prisoners was resolved by Britain’s catastrophic loss of Kabul and the subsequent massacre of an entire 16,000-strong army as it attempted to retreat.
Seriously, the whole army. To a man. Except for one guy.
Reasoning‡ that the routed British were now of no conceivable threat, nor his prisoners of any conceivable benefit, Nasrullah Khan now accused them of espionage and abused them with impunity.
The two were cast into an Indiana Jones-esque “bug pit,” an oubliette infested with … well, you know.§
Later, finding illicit writing materials secreted on his captives’ persons, the mercurial Nasrullah disposed of them outright.
their quarters were entered by several men, who stripped them, and carried them off to prison … In stripping Colonel Stoddart a lead pencil was found in the lining of his coat, and some papers in his waist. These were taken to the Ameer, who gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be beaten with heavy sticks until he disclosed who brought the papers, and to whom he wrote. He was most violently beaten, but he revealed nothing; he was beaten repeatedly for two or three days. On Friday, the 8th or 9th (the 7th) of Jemmadee-ool-Eovel (17th of June), the Ameer gave orders that Colonel Stoddart should be killed in the presence of Captain Conolly, who was to be offered life if he would become a Mahomedan. In the afternoon they were taken outside the prison into the street, which is a kind of small square. Their hands were tied across in front. Many people assembled to behold the spectacle. Their graves were dug before their eyes. Colonel Stoddart exclaimed aloud at the cruelty and tyranny of the Ameer. His head was then cut off with a knife.
The chief executioner then turned to Captain Conolly, and said — “The Ameer spares your life if you will become a Mussulman.” Captain Conolly answered, “Colonel Stoddart has been a Mussulman for three years, and you have killed him, you killed Yoosoof too; I will not be a Mussulman, and I am ready to die.” Saying which he stretched forth his neck. His head was then cut off.
The veracity of this faint bulletin from a distant and inaccessible realm nevertheless remained in some doubt. Friends of the lost men, despairing of obtaining definitive word of their fate, commissioned a strange but courageous missionary named Joseph Wolff to brave his own sojourn to Bokhara to investigate.
Wolff barely escaped with his own life, but seemingly confirmed the sad story and published a Narrative of his travels in 1845 (Part 1, Part 2).
* The initially reported June 17 execution date was subsequently contested by Joseph Pierre Ferrier, who argued that the chronology instead pointed to the next Friday, June 24. The matter appears to me permanently unresolvable.
** Ironically, the sportive phrase “the Great Game” was itself attributed to Arthur Conolly for whom, in the end, events turned out to be quite other than playful.
† Britain recaptured Kabul in reprisal later in 1842, upon which pretext it was able to declare its honor vindicated and depart Kabul (sans massacre), ending the war. Certain latter-day occupations of that “graveyard of empires” might envy their forebear’s talent for declaring victory and leaving.
‡ Correctly. Nasrullah Khan faced no British reprisal for his treatment of Stoddart and Conolly, notwithstanding the attempt by some friends to use their sad fate as some sort of casus belli. This public domain book from 1845 bears a dedication to Queen Victoria in “hope of directing your Majesty’s attention to the cruel sufferings and alleged murder of two British officers … abandoned in an unaccountable manner, by your Majesty’s Government … [in circumstances] degrading to the British nation;” the same man had previously published an “Appeal to the British Nation” in an “endeavour to excite the public sympathy.” Sympathy or no, the two British officers stayed abandoned.
§ Bug tortureenhanced interrogation was actually authorized during the Bush administration for the insect-averse Abu Zubaydah. The gentleman approving that technique, Jay Bybee, is now a federal circuit judge.
A quarter-century ago this date, a “scared” mentally disabled prisoner named Jerome Bowden was electrocuted in Georgia for a crime many think he did not commit.
Bowden drew a death sentence for a robbery-murder on the strength of two very suspect pieces of evidence:
the accusation of a juvenile co-defendant who might well have been the real murderer; and
a signed confession Bowden could barely understand
While present-day DNA exonerations are fortunately forcing reconsideration of the ubiquitous problem of false confessions, Bowden’s was understandably doubted even before his execution.
Asked to explain his signature on a document obviously beyond his capacity to compose himself, he gave a confused answer that seemed to indicate he’d been led to sign it by a suggestion that it would keep him out of the electric chair.
“Detective Myles had told me this here … Had told me about could help me, that he could, you know, which I knew that confessing to something you didn’t take part in was-if you confess to something that you didn’t do, as if you did it, because you are saying that you did.”
Bowden’s assent to this fatal “admission” sadly evokes the characteristic eagerness to please one often encounters in the developmentally disabled — sometimes, as with Joe Arridy, to their own destruction.
It’s noticeable, too, in Bowden’s incongruously ingratiating last statements, recordings of which were taken and subsequently leaked publicly. This and others are available at SoundPortraits.org.*
Bowden had been evaluated with an I.Q. of 59 at the age of 14, the examiner reporting him “functioning at the lower limits of mild retardation. He has little or no insight into his situation … He is easily distracted and has a tendency to act on impulse regardless of the consequences.”
And even though the authorities hustled through a test the day before his execution that reckoned Bowden with an I.Q. of 65 — still solidly below the conventional threshold for mental disability, but good enough for the Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles — the whole affair shook the state. It “unsettled more than a few persons in government and law enforcement,” the Atlanta Constitution later editorialized.
Its [the state’s] reasoning was grievously faulty. Whether Bowden understood his fate or not, whether he knew right from wrong — he was indisputably handicapped …
Most states have progressed beyond the dated right-wrong standard in weighing such cases … and ask: Could the defendant help himself? There is compelling evidence that Bowden could not …
brute whimsy was given full sway. For the state of Georgia, it was a willful lapse of decency.
-Atlanta Constitution, July 1, 1986 editorial**
This lapse of decency rippled over the months ahead until Georgia in 1988 became the first state to enact a law barring the execution of the mentally disabled.
While that decision was reversed in 2002, the putative ban on executing the mentally disabled in the United States remains very far from a bright line. It’s up to the states themselves to decide who falls under that definition,† and at least some have given ample indication that they’re prepared to exploit any expediency necessary to get a fellow onto death row, or keep him there. Earlier this very week, Texas (of course) put to death a man of dubious competence, Milton Mathis, essentially by cherry-picking its data and having federal appellate review barred on a technicality.
A quarter-century on, those ripples started by Jerome Bowden still have a way to go.
Two of the Nationalist leaders, Malik-Mutikalamin and Mannchir Khan, were hanged in the Royal camp to-day. Anxiety is felt regarding the fate of the others, including the President, notwithstanding the verbal promise of the Shah to spare their lives.
The house of Zahir-ed-Dowleh, now Governor of Resht, has been bombarded and looted. A state of terrorism exists.
Troops are guarding the approaches to the British Legation, with orders to shoot fugitives seeking sanctuary there.
-London Times, June 25, 1908
On this date, two Persian constitionalist liberals were summarily hanged by the Shah as two factions fought for the future of Iran.
On June 23, the Shah’s Cossacks — he had Russian support, arranged with the connivance of other European powers — bombarded Iran’s parliament, capturing in the process a number of constitutional delegates.
Two in particular, both of them prominent AzaliBab’i exponents of the constitution, would interest the Shah.
Mirza Jahangir Khan (left), and Malek al-Motakallemin.
Journalist, revolutionary, and intellectual Mirza Jahangir Khan Shirazi was a well-known spokesperson of the reformist cause through his paper Sur-e Esrafil. Malek al-Motakallemin was a dissident essayist and preacher with an interest in Persia’s Zoroastrian ancient history.
Their hanging this day calmed the capital for the moment, but hardly settled matters in Iran. (Indeed, one could say matters have never been settled in Iran.) By the next year, Mohammad Ali Shah Qajar was out on his ear (he’d die in exile) — succeeded by the last monarch of the Qajar dynasty.
June 26 is U.N. Anti-Drug Day, and if this year follows the recent trend, China will be marking the run-up with the salutary execution of consumers and/or vendors of chemical compounds disapproved by the state. (Update:Yesindeedit did.)
On June 24, 2008, for instance, Tseng Fu-wen, “a Taiwanese citizen who was convicted of producing or selling methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs,” was put to death in the eastern province of Fujian.
Two accomplices drew a prison sentence and a suspended death sentence (typically commuted to a prison sentence after two years).
Prosecutors said the Taiwanese trio started making drugs in October 2006.
Police arrested them one month later in Xiamen after they bought 50 kilograms of ephedrine to make methamphetamine, commonly known as “ice.”
The police also recovered 63.8 kilograms of ice, plus “varying quantities of other drugs such as heroin, and equipment and raw material in a workshop,” the agency said.
The method of execution does not appear to have been reported by the state media; China uses both lethal injection and gunshot, but I have not been able to document which method prevails in Fujian.
On this date in 1953, a guerrilla with the nom de guerre “Khmara” was shot in Kiev’s Lukianivka Prison for his involvement in a still-controversial resistance movement.
Dmytro Bilinchuk on the forest moon of Endor. UPA regs supposedly strictly prohibited photography; being rebels by nature, they snapped enough to fill up this page.
History is lived forward but understood backward. Therein lies the ambiguity of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a nationalist organization that operated in Galicia and environs after the Nazi invasion and persisted several years afterwards.
At its height, the UPA is said to have had up to 100,000 members, famously operating out of subterranean forest bunkers. This day’s victim was the captain of one of its companies; there is very little about him available online in English — principally his death date — but Ukrainian sites add the folklorish but poignant detail of his supposed adoption of an orphaned bear cub.
But about his organization, the name alone is sufficient to invite the most acrimonious debate:* were these partisans Nazi collaborators? Ukrainian patriots? Both?
Ukrainian nationalists, under the leadership of a man who had abandoned socialism for a fascist national ideology (everyone was doing it), entered the World War II era having conspicuously failed to grasp independence in a period when nationhood was being handed out like candy to small European states.
The specific kettle for Ukraine’s stewing ethnic aspirations was Galicia, the northeastern shoulder of the Carpathian mountains presently in western Ukraine. Galicia had been at the heart of both Polish and Ukrainian national movements, and they fought for it after World War I — a war won by Warsaw. (Meanwhile, Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War forestalled national ambtions further east.)
Brewed with the movement’s right-wing ideology, Ukrainian nationalism developed an anti-Polish, anti-Russian, anti-Communist programme, and it gazed around 1930’s Europe wondering if it couldn’t find an aggressive great power with a similar outlook that might take Ukraine under its wing.
Fast forward to the eve of World War II: by the terms of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler and Stalin carved up the Ukrainians’ rival and thrust Galicia into Soviet hands, incidentally exposing its inhabitants to the pleasures of life under Stalin.
For Ukrainian nationalists, the altered situation of the Poland partition — followed shortly by Hitler’s initially successful invasion of Russia — offered an apparent opportunity to realize the dream of statehood under the patronage of a somewhat congenial Nazi government.
Though there’s a great deal of contention this author is not remotely qualified to referee about precisely which organs collaborated with or resisted the Nazis in precisely which ways, it seems fair summation to say that Ukraine’s nationalist movement was happy to treat with Berlin. Berlin being more reserved about a Slavic nationalist movement in its conquered territory, the UPA’s proposed institutional alliance with the Wehrmacht never quite came to pass as such, but that left many nationalists as freelance collaborators instead.** The hypothetical Ukrainian state in a Nazi-dominated Europe was not going to come about by sabotaging the Germans.
Instead, the UPA got busy laying the groundwork for an ethnically homogeneous Ukrainian homeland by fighting a reciprocal dirty war of ethnic cleansing against Poles in Galicia (most notoriously and emblematically, at Volhynia) — eventually developing into inter-partisan civil warfare against both Polish and Communist units (who had their own differences) with the odd brush with the Wehrmacht mixed in, and giving way to full concentration upon Soviet authorities as Red Army drove out the Germans.
The fact of having engaged German troops is a loudly bandied point in the UPA’s modern defense — the elevator pitch is that they “fought the Nazis and the Communists,” though it sure looks like they fought the one a lot harder than the other, and fought both less eagerly than they fought the Poles. There may be no cause to call UPA fighters other than sincere patriots of a nation whose aspirations were no less worthy than any other, who under beastly circumstances and for motives they believed noble committed sins no uglier than many other nationalists: even so, the thing separating that militia and its movement from, say, the Croatian Ustashi looks like opportunity rather than principle. Most perceived at the strategic plane a clear choice between Nazi victory with Ukrainian independence and Nazi defeat without, and most consciously preferred the former. No doubt the UPA would retort that its only other option was worse.
While Ukraine had a predictable exodus of anti-communist types as World War II drew to a close,† thousands of UPA guerrillas stuck around to keep up their fight (already underway) against the Soviets — including Dmytro Bilinchuk, whose biography can be enjoyed by readers of Ukrainian here.
It took a decade or more for Russia to extirpate this movement by hunting down its Bilinchuks. Buried in obscurity for the remainder of the Cold War, however, the martyrs of the OUN and UPA have pried open their tombs since Ukraine separated from the USSR in 1991 and become a contentious symbol in present-day Ukraine.
The OUN successor Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists has been part of Ukraine’s governing alliance since the Orange Revolution, and has pressed to treat its dead forebears as national heroes — renaming streets and attempting to rehabilitate UPA veterans into a class with those of the Red Army, a problematic enterprise since the two groups spent years killing one another. Old warriors may never reconcile, but the self-conscious reconstruction of the Ukrainian partisan movement in the service of shaping modern Ukrainians’ identity is a going concern:
Proving Faulkner’s old aphorism that the past isn’t dead and isn’t even past, this latter-day party and others of the Orange coalition remain electorally rooted in the UPA’s old western Ukraine stomping grounds, and tend to lean towards western Europe in outlook; eastern Ukraine remains more heavily Russian-oriented, and more inclined to the Russians’ distasteful view of the OUN and UPA.
** Late in the war, Germany would eventually form its own Galician SS Division. UPA proponents take pains to separate this German-officered formation from UPA guerrillas.
† Ironically, Ukrainians who bolted west — including the Galician SS division, which undertook a forced march to surrender in Italy rather than to the Soviets — profited greatly from having been “occupied” by Poland before the war, and from bloodily moving the border during the war. A refugee screening report (cited in Poland’s Holocaust — a source hostile to the UPA, as the title suggests) commented that Ukrainian detainees
are really having the best of both worlds. They do not qualify as Soviet citizens because their place of birth and/or habitual domicile on 1.9.39 were in Poland, and they therefore by our definition escape all punishment by the Russians for their having assisted the enemy; and they are not presumably eligible now for punishment by the Polish authorities because that part of the country from which they came is no longer part of Poland.