On this date in 1621, Christenze (or Christence) Kruckow was beheaded as a witch — the only known noblewoman to suffer that fate in Danish history.
Kruckow first came under the witchsmeller’s nose in the 1590s. As a young woman, she lived in the household of a man named Eiler Brockenhuus — common practice at the time in Danish high society. The supposition is that when the lady of the house died in 1582, Kruckow might have aspired to make a permanent move. Instead, the position of wife no. 2 went to another woman named Anne Brille.
From the sound of it, Anne Brille spent the ensuing decade-plus in a state of continual pregnancy, punctuated only by periods of mourning as all 15* of her prospective progeny miscarried or died in infancy. Pick your environmental toxin or genetic abnormality of choice, but it’s no surprise this started to give the poor would-be mother the heebie-jeebies. Eventually, two of the estate’s servants got caught up in a 1596 witchcraft interrogation and were burned at the stake — but not before implicating Christenze Kruckow as part of the coven.
On that occasion, the usual reticence to visit on elites the sanctions intended for their lessers prevailed, and Christenze simply had to relocate to a sister’s household in Alborg.
But a reputation for black magic wasn’t the best thing to have to one’s name in early 17th century Europe, when witch-hunting reached a horrifying acme. Like his brother-in-law James VI of Scotland (also James I of England), the long-reigning Danish king Christian IV developed a personal obsession with the diabolical, leading to an effusion of witchcraft trials in the 1610s and early 1620s.
Now, Kruckow’s elite status served to attract instead of deflect attention; it didn’t help that she was become a never-married hexagenarian. When a neighbor’s wife fell ill in witch-spooked Alborg, the accusations against her snowballed into their customary colorful forms, such as that she’d been seen delivering a pregnant woman (Danish link) of a troll or ogre at some fell sabbath. King Christian took a personal interest in seeing her case prosecuted, and in the end it was his own Privy Council that tried her, and then sentenced her to the privileged death by the sword instead of the stake: the last deferences to her social rank. She confessed at that time to having attempted to lay a curse on the wedding-bed of her long-ago rival, Anne Brille.
In between her witch episodes, Christenze Kruckow had taken an interest in education for poor children in Alborg. She carried her philanthropy (more Danish) even beyond the scaffold, bequeathing 1,000 rigsdalers to a university scholarship that the University of Copenhagen was still awarding into the 20th century — popularly known as the “beheaded virgin grant”.
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.
Japan is in the news this morning for the surprise hanging of 68-year-old Masanori Kawasaki.
Kawasaki stabbed to death his sister-in-law Keiko Miura and her two granddaughters in 2007.
“It was an extremely cruel case,” Justice Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki said in announcing the execution.
Nevertheless, every execution no matter the circumstances of the crime draws controversy in Japan, which only hangs a handful of inmates in a typical year* and many of them only after very longwaits. (At under seven years from stab to rope, Kawasaki’s was very fast by Japanese standards.)
Japan’s death penalty is distinguished — apart from the very fact of its existence, which makes it the only G8 country besides the United States to boast an active death chamber — by hangings conducted without prior announcement. Once a prisoner’s final appeals are turned down (Kawasaki’s were rejected in 2012) he can essentially be executed at any time the Justice Minister signs off, and have no more warning than the hour it takes to dash off final letters and final prayers. The condemned must acclimate day by day to the continual haunts of a capricious death that might snatch them at any moment.
Amnesty International can’t be far from the mark in the response issued by its East Asia Research Director to Kawasaki’s hanging: “Death row inmates live under the constant fear of execution, never knowing from one day or the next if they are going to be put to death. This is adds psychological torture to an already cruel and inhumane punishment.”
Another Japanese death row inmate, Shigeo Okazaki, also died this June 26 of 2014. He suffered respiratory failure.
A man … who was in the habit of asking his wife for money to buy brandy, would on her refusal say that he would go hang himself. When on 23 June 1668 he again asked for two pennies to buy brandy, his wife said she had no money, whereupon he replied, “I will hang myself or may the devil take me.” His wife replied, “Do whatever you like, you always say that,” and went back to her cleaning. Shortly thereafter, she found that her husband had hanged himself in their home. She then called for the neighbors, who have all made declarations and given evidence. On a charge by the bailiff, his corpse has been taken to the Volewijk on 26 June 1668 and hanged on a gibbet.
It seems that Dutch law from about the 16th century, and certainly in the 17th century, began drawing a categorical distinction between suicides driven by madness or despair, and those ob conscientiam criminis — criminals who took their life to cheat the law.
Posthumous execution was inflicted upon the latter all the way up until the French Revolution reached the Low Countries in 1795. Bosman, for example, notes the case of a thief gibbeted in Amsterdam in 1792 after he hanged himself in jail. For non-criminal suicides, “punishment” was more typically a silent night-time burial, perhaps in unconsecrated ground: a meaningful deterrent for at least some of the living, but very distinct from judicial infamy. The widower of a 1532 suicide had even successfully appealed Amsterdam’s attempt to levy a punitive fine on the estate.
Hans Bontemantel, one of Amsterdam’s sheriffs, was incensed by the archaic sentence executed in 1668: “I am not responsible for this,” he noted in the margin of his summary. “And it is against the law.”
Sometime in the summer of 1943 in Nazi Germany, a young woman from Berlin named Marianne Elise Kürchner was guillotined for telling a joke.
Kürchner, who worked at an armaments factory, told the following joke to a coworker who denounced her:
Hitler and Göring are standing atop the Berlin radio tower. Hitler says he wants to do something to put a smile on Berliners’ faces. So Göring says: “Why don’t you jump?”
Not exactly a side-splitter. More like a neck-splitter: making jokes at Hitler’s expense was, in theory at least, a capital crime.
Mind you, most people who made nasty wisecracks about the Nazis faced no consequences at all. They were rarely denounced, and if they did come before a court they were usually given a warning, or at most a few months of “re-education” in Dachau.
The Nazis did occasionally use sedition as an excuse to arrest and execute people who’d gotten on their bad side for one reason or another, but ordinary Germans initially had little to fear.
However, as the tide of war began to turn against Germany, the punishments for sedition became ever more severe.
Marianne was called up before the People’s Court, whose president, Roland Freisler, was famous for both his long raving speeches berating defendants, and his death sentences. She admitted to making the joke but said she hadn’t been herself at the time, feeling bitter about the recent loss of her husband at the front.
Freisler would have none of it. In fact, he considered Marianne’s status as a war widow to be an aggravating factor. “The People’s Court,” Rudolf Herzog said of this case in his book Dead Funny: Humor in Hitler’s Germany, “made it a point of pride to take no account of individual suffering.” In his ruling, Friesler wrote:
As the widow of a fallen German soldier, Marianne Kürchner tried to undermine our will to manly defense and dedicated labor in the armaments sector toward victory by making malicious remarks about the Führer and the German people and by uttering the wish that we should lose the war … She has excluded herself from the racial community. Her honor has been permanently destroyed and therefore she shall be punished with death.
The People’s Court’s judgment was rendered on June 26, 1943. Marianne lost her head shortly thereafter.
On June 26, 1885, two Cherokee men — James Arcene and William Parchmeal — were hanged at Fort Smith, Arkansas. Moments before their deaths, both men made statements, though it is unlikely that their last words were intelligible to many witnesses at the military outpost, owing to the heavy rain and the fact that Parchmeal spoke little English.* Under the eye of Federal Judge Isaac Parker, the notorious “Hanging Judge” of the old Southwest, Arcene and Parchmeal had their limbs bound and their faces covered before being “launched into eternity.”**
In February, Arcene and Parchmeal had been convicted of a murder committed 13 years previously. On November 25, 1872, someone had killed a Swedish immigrant named Henry Feigel on the road near Fort Gibson in Indian Territory (now Oklahoma). The case remained unsolved for over a decade.
In 1884, 12 years after Feigel’s death, a U.S. Deputy Marshall named Andrews arrested Arcene and Parchmeal in connection with the murder. Though documents describing the evidence used to obtain the arrest warrant are not readily available, Andrews was able to convince a judge (probably the same Judge Parker who presided over the trial) that the trail had not gone cold after so many years. Arcene “denied having knowledge of the killing,” but Parchmeal made a statement through an interpreter “admitting being present, but said that he was there under duress and that Arcine did the killing.”†
After both men were convicted, Arcene made a confession stating that he had “shot [Feigel] six times, then both took rocks and mashed the man’s head” before dragging him off the road and robbing him of his boots and 25 cents. Judge Parker sentenced both men to hang.
At first glance, there is little to distinguish this case from the 77 other executions presided over by Judge Parker during his tenure at Fort Smith.‡ Parker had been appointed to the bench in the hope that he would make Indian Territory feel the full might of the federal government, and he did not disappoint. According to one chronicler of the Fort Smith court under Judge Parker,
“Tried, found guilty as charged, sentenced,” was the tale repeated until the mere fact of arrest meant almost certain conviction. The sentence “To die on the gallows” was passed upon more men here than anywhere in history. So numerous were the executions [Parker] ordered and so commonplace the thunderous crash of the gallows trap that street urchins playing outside the old walls would gleefully shout: “There goes another man to hell with his boots on!”
But this execution was peculiar in one significant detail: James Arcene claimed to have been “only a boy [about] 10 or 12 years old” at the time of the murder.† If true, he was one of the youngest criminals in American history to have his crime punished by a federally-sanctioned execution.
It is difficult to verify James Arcene’s age with any degree of certainty. Census records for Indian Territory in the 1870s and 1880s are spotty at best, and few other vital records survive. It is possible that Arcene may have hoped to obtain a pardon by falsely pleading youth, but he did not revise his statement, even when it became apparent that it would do him no good. We may never know how old James Arcene really was — all we can know is that he claimed to have been a child in 1872 and that Judge Parker ignored this information and sentenced the adult who stood before him.§
If James Arcene was a juvenile offender, he looked very much like the other children and adolescents executed in the United States since the era of the American Revolution. Those offenders executed for crimes committed before the age of 18 have disproportionately been African American, Native American, or Hispanic teenagers who have committed crimes against white victims. This is true of the 20th century as well as the 19th: of the 22 juvenile offenders executed for murder in the US between 1976 and 2004, 77% had killed a white victim, though only 50% of homicides perpetrated by juvenile offenders involved a white victim. As of 2004, 9 of the last 10 juvenile offenders executed in Texas, the state responsible for 59% of all juvenile executions, were black or Hispanic. (Figures from the Death Penalty Information Center.)
In March of 2005, the Supreme Court handed down a 5-4 ruling in Roper v. Simmons declaring that states could no longer execute criminals who had committed their crimes while under the age of 18.
* See “Murder for Money,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 27 June 1885 on rain, and “Hanged on the Gallows,” New York Times, 27 June 1885 on Parchmeal’s need for an interpreter.
** “Murder for Money,” Daily Arkansas Gazette, 27 June 1885.
† “Hanged on the Gallows,” New York Times, 27 June 1885.
‡ Judge Parker sentenced 156 men and 4 women to death. Of these, 79 were actually executed, the rest having died in prison, had their sentences commuted, or were pardoned.
§ It should be noted that many books make the erroneous claim that Arcene was 10 at the time of his execution. This is not the case — all available primary documents agree that he was an adult in 1885. I made this same mistake in my earlier guest post on the case of Hannah Ocuish, having relied on Dean J. Champion’s The American Dictionary of Criminal Justice: Key Terms and Major Court Cases (2005).
On this date in 1574, Gabriel de Lorges was beheaded in Paris for treason.
Known by the time of his death as the Comte de Montgomery (English Wikipedia entry | French) — though the title was punitively stripped from the man and his heirs, causing him to spit at the scaffold, “tell my children, if they are not able to reclaim their position, I curse them from the grave” — Lorges’ treason was going Protestant and fighting for the Huguenots in the wars of religion ravaging France.
But his claim to fame, and indeed (if quite unjustly) one of the explicit charges laid against him, was a regicide that fueled those wars and helped bring down the Valois dynasty.
In 1559, though, the sporting monarch put his own butt in the saddle at a joust with our day’s principal, then a captain of Henri’s Scots Guards (and a Catholic).
Gabriel’s shattered lance somehow found a chink in the king’s visor and managed to tolchock the royal gulliver just beside the eye.* After a week and a half in agony, Henri succumbed to the injury.**
Henri’s sudden death was bad news for France, because the oldest† of his seven children was only 15 years old, and feeble. He died the next year.
As the widowed Italian queen Catherine de’ Medici struggled over the ensuing decades to find a stable Valois heir among her brood, the aggressively Catholic House of Guise‡ flexed its political muscle to the resentment of the Bourbons and the Huguenot lords, and pitched France towards civil war.
Our errant knight, meanwhile, although forgiven by the dying Henri II, had despairingly retired and hurled himself into study that soon converted him to the Protestant party.
Quickly distinguishing himself as perhaps the ablest Huguenot commander, Montgomery was in Paris in 1572 during an ostensible truce for interparty dynastic nuptials when the Catholic faction sprang the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre.
Though Montgomery was a specific target for assassination that day, he somehow managed to escape. He gave the Catholics fits for the two years left him, enough that the crown tried to buy him off. (Like most Protestants, he was distrustfully defiant after the horrors of St. Bartholomew’s Day.)
He was finally overcome in 1574; as Henri’s second son had just kicked the bucket without an heir, Catherine assumed the regency while a third boy was fetched from Poland, and got herself some gratifying but untoward revenge on the inadvertent author of her family’s unfolding ruin.
No time was lost in condemning [Montgomery] to the penalties of high treason; he was beheaded at the Greve, his body quartered, and his family degraded from their nobility. Previous to his execution, he was cruelly tortured to make him confess the existence of the late admiral‘s conspiracy, but the pain drew no such acknowledgment from him, and mangled and wounded as he was, he went to the scaffold with remarkable serenity. We have an account, given by a contemporary, of his steady attachment to his principles: “He would not confess to the Archbishop of Narbonne, who went to him in the chapel to admonish him; nor would he take or kiss the crucifix, which is usually presented to those who are being led to execution; nor in any way attend to the priest, who had been placed in the cart by his side. A cordelier thinking to draw him out of error, began to speak to him, and said that he had been abused. Looking at him steadily, he answered, ‘How! abused? and if I have been it is by those of your order: for the first person who ever handed me a Bible in French, and made me read it, was a cordelier like you; and therein I have learned the religion which I hold, which alone is the true religion, and in which, having since lived, I wish now by the grace of God to die.'”
(Some sources place Montgomery’s execution on May 27, which I believe confuses his date of death with his date of capture.)
Just like Montgomery himself, the Huguenot cause proved resistant to every policy of Catherine or the Guises; this day’s execution only screwed up the nerve of a party that had been given notice on St. Bartholomew’s Day that their lot must be to conquer or die. Since Henri II’s boys could neither, over 30 years’ time, produce an heir nor master their foes at arms, the Huguenots conquered when the throne finally passed to a Bourbon.
A public-domain biography of Gabriel de Lorges, comte de Montgomery, can be enjoyed by French-speakers here. For the English-speakers, Alexandre Dumas’ fictionalized treatment, The Two Dianas, is freely available in translation.
* French surgeon Ambroise Pare attended the dying monarch. Pare’s grim description of the king’s injuries appears in this biography of the physician, which also reports that Henri’s caregivers
secured the heads of four criminals that had been beheaded and experimented upon them with a lance in order to ascertain the probable course of the splinters.
** The fatal joust is alleged to be one of the vindicated prophecies of Nostradamus. Prophecy or no, the family had bad luck with sports; Henri came in line for the throne when his older brother dropped dead after playing tennis.
† Henri II’s immediate heir Francis II was married to Mary, Queen of Scots. After the death of her husband, she unhappily shipped back out to Scotland to contest the English throne, with unsatisfactory results.
On this date in 1979, the putschist government of Ghana shot former military rulers Frederick William Kwasi Akuffo and Akwasi Amankwaa Afrifa along with four others at the Teshie Military Range for corruption.
Enter Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings, who had actually failed in a coup attempt in May and was in line for execution himself before his mates toppled the government on June 4.
Seeking to stabilize the situation — and, Rawlings himself has said, riding the tiger of popular fury — the new government served up a few high-profile morsels on charges of pilfering the treasury in order to forestall a general slaughter of senior officers by the armed forces’ lower ranks.
There was no alternative. We had to contain it within the military so it didn’t spill into the civil front — if it had it would have been terrible.
We had no choice but to sacrifice the most senior ones — the commanders.
Another former head of state, Gen. Ignatius Kutu Acheamphong, had been shot earlier in the month; on this date, Akuffo and Gen. Akwasi Afrifa, one of the original 1966 plotters who had ruled Ghana in 1969-70, followed him. Afrifa, ironically, had written to Acheamphong worrying that political upheaval and military discipline could find them … well, where it eventually found them:
I feel greatly disturbed about the future after the government … In order to discourage the military from staging coups in the future, how about if they line all of us up and shot us one by one? I do not certainly want to be arrested, given some sort of trial and shot.
All these shootings had an unseemly character of haste and summary justice; charges against the four senior ministers* shot along with the former rulers have struck an especially sour note. Rawlings has claimed that he only wanted the two former heads of state shot and tried unsuccessfully to stop the other four executions.
I attempted to prevent it and sent an officer but the firing squad shot the officers before their commander could give the order … you must understand our country was in a state of rage then, not different from what Russia was when it had its revolution.
I was a partial hostage to that situation. I had no force. The authority that I enjoyed was my moral authority with the people. Their action (the execution of the senior officers by the boys) was to curtail the anger of the nation.
Rawlings would hand power over to a civilian government, which he then overthrew again in 1981 — looking like this:
He would run Ghana for the next two decades, the last eight years after winning elections. Rawlings’ legacy is much up for debate, but to many he cuts the figure of a benevolent dictator (how many former strongmen have fan pages?) whose human rights abuses were mild in the scheme of things and helped usher in a relatively prosperous and democratic Ghana that stands a very far cry from the country he took over in 1979.
There were some of them who probably deserved it. Pardon me for putting it that way. There were some of them who did not — very brilliant, beautiful officers. But we had no choice but to make that sacrifice.
The bodies of all the officers executed in June of 1979 were exhumed for “fitting burial” under Rawlings’ successor in 2001.
* One of the aides held the Ghanaian high jump record at the time of his death, a mark not surpassed until 1996.